Towards a new industrial revolution: studying societies’ metabolism

Press Release by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research


To achieve a lasting transition towards sustainability, large-scale conversion of our built environment – cities, transport systems, power generation – is key. This is an outcome of a special feature investigating advances in the research on industrial ecology, to be published in the Proceedings of the US National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) and coordinated by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK). Studies cover topics from the urbanization effects to the material basis of modern societies, fundamental research that informs decision-makers.

“Studying the metabolism of today’s societies reveals that small-scale short-term plumbing will not suffice to substantially reduce risks that paradoxically arise from the success of industrialization,” says lead editor Helga Weisz, co-chair of PIK’s research domain Transdiciplinary Concepts and Methods. “Our greenhouse-gas emissions and the resulting climate change illustrate this. It turns out that, if sustainability is the aim, a new industrial and indeed social revolution would be needed. While the industrial revolution of the 19th century was based on fossil fuel and large material throughput, the one of the 21st century would move away from these and towards zero-carbon energy systems and closed material cycles.” The world climate summit in Paris later this year needs to provide a robust foundation for this transition, she adds.

Infrastructure built today determines tomorrow’s burdens

The research shows that infrastructure that is being built today determines energy and material use for decades. For instance, a spread-out city design creates long distances and renders efficient public transport systems economically unattainable. “Hence we need to change the systems of urbanization, mobility and energy,” explains Weisz. For instance a global switch to renewable electricity, one study shows, could yield twice the present-day power output at stabilized or reduced environmental impacts. However, the requirements for cement or aluminum would increase.

One of the special issue’s studies shows that the amount of energy used in cities by 2050 could be reduced by more than 25 percent. Cities in developing countries in Asia, Africa and the Middle East have by far the highest potential for energy savings. For cities in industrialized countries, higher gasoline prices combined with a compact urban form would do the job of increasing efficiency, while in developing countries urban form and transport planning are projected to be more important. In fact, by modelling 274 cities worldwide, from Dar Es Salaam in Tanzania to Hamburg, Germany, the researchers identified eight different types of urbanisation each of which needs different mitigation policies to maximize their impact. Cities are key for tackling the climate challenge since they consume about three quarters of global energy.

“We need to redraw the material picture of our economy”

“The large scale transformation of the energy infrastructure to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions would be no walk in the park,” says Sangwon Suh of the Bren School of Environmental Science & Management at the University of California in Santa Barbara, co-editor of the special feature. “It would entail a fundamental change in material flows. Ramping up renewable energy production capacity, for instance, leads to much larger flux of specialty metals than today. In order to achieve a smooth transition toward a low-carbon energy future, therefore, we need to fundamentally redraw the material picture of our economy.”

It is more than twenty years since PNAS published a similar roundup of insights in this area of research. At that time, the analysis was largely devoid of data and sometimes rather conceptual in nature, whereas the studies now published assess societies’ metabolism in a quantitative way. Also, this strand of research has moved from case-studies to analyses of global material systems and their interaction with society and the environment. Thus the PNAS special feature for the first time outlines industrial ecology as frontier science.

“Understanding and quantifying the physical basis of modern society is a key component of sustainability” says Thomas E. Graedel of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, the third co-editor of the special feature. “Addressing this challenge is a central focus of industrial ecology.”

Article: Weisz, H., Suh, S., Graedel, T.E. (2015): Industrial Ecology: The role of manufactured capital in sustainability. Special Feature: Introduction. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences [doi: 10.1073/pnas.1506532112]

Weblink to the article:

Article: Creutzig, F., Baiocchi, G., Bierkandt, R., Pichler, P.-P., Seto, K. (2015): A Global Typology of Urban Energy Use and Potentials for an Urbanization Mitigation Wedge. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences [doi: 10.1073/pnas.1315545112]

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Phone: +49 331 288 25 07


Twitter: @PIK_Climate

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1 Response

  1. Poo says:

    Before we all move into the same 1,000 story apartment block with everything we need spread out over all of the floors and central heating is supplied by body heat, a few thoughts come to mind.
    Canadians like me are noted for our high energy consumption. Bad us. We live in what can politely be called an intemperate climate featuring cold winters, many record setting ones of late thanks to what used to be called Global Warming. Brrrr. Our population density is amongst the world’s lowest, right there with Iceland, Mongolia and Australia. We can see our neighbours, usually with binoculars. Our urban centres Potsdam and the other pretenders to world government propose to radically change are scattered over thousands of kilometres from coast to coast. Here we like to say coast to coast to coast but our northern coast is not terribly urbanized unless you count igloos as urbanization. High-kilometre automobile usage in Canada is still essential for over 80 per cent of adults. Those being the ones who like to socialize and go to work. The distribution of goods, as even Potsdam could figure without much of a study, covers vast distances.
    We democratically choose to travel internationally more than any country other than some in the close-knit EU bloc. We don’t deem driving from France into Spain as travel. That distance wouldn’t get you into another Province. In some cases not even into another city here in the Frozen North.
    We are one of the world’s largest material, mineral and energy exporters. I know Potsdam would have us stop but it is necessary for our national economic well-being. We like economic well-being.
    Helga Weisz is the co-chair of PIK’s research domain Transdiciplinary Concepts and Methods. Try putting that on a business card without leaving an increased carbon foot print. She believes that the necessary industrial and social revolution of the 21st will move us “towards zero-carbon energy systems and closed material cycles. The world climate summit in Paris later this year needs to provide a robust foundation for this transition.” Perhaps these hypocritical climate tourists could make a start but stopping all these 5 star meetings in exotic locales around the world. They jet set from one lahdidah hotel to the next all the while mightily burning the very fossil fuels they claim to denounce. Or am I missing something? Are these planes powered by solar panels or wind turbines? Just asking. The vanguard of the environmental movement is highly compromised at best or hypocritical at worst. The latter seems most likely.
    I have followed these expense accounts on steroids from Kyoto to Montreal to Bali to Copenhagen and look forward to the laughs that Paris will provide. I say that cynically. I’m a taxpayer and fear the bloated representation I will have at great expense will do nothing because we don’t want it to. But here is a suggestion or two for those that are forced to sleep in those feather beds, swill champagne and eat quiche whilst in Paris. Hire a full-time, multi-lingual fact-checker. Better yet, hire two.
    Canada’s oil sands are not tar sands and they are not, repeat not going away. What would happen to poor Warren Buffett and his railroads and rail cars running into the U.S. carrying more than 160,000 barrels a day and increasing? The oil sands are sand trapped in oil while tar is a man-made substance that doesn’t exist in nature. Tar is useful for caulking both roofs and basements but cannot be made into a fuel. Oil sands can be and are even as I type. In spite of the caterwauling, today’s oil sands technology has almost the same carbon footprint as conventional oil and cleaner than some, say Venezuela’s for example.
    How about a carbon tax? Those U.N. types will tax anything short of themselves. They have expense accounts for that. In Canada, the Province of B.C., that’s British Columbia on our left coast is widely held up by taxpayer funded eco-warriors as an example of how such taxes do not harm economic growth. While it is true that jobs in British Columbia have risen 1.9% between 2008 and 2013, that is less than half the Canadian average of 4.1%. Unemployment in B.C. has risen 2.0 percentage points over the same period, compared with less than 1% elsewhere in the country. Real GDP growth has been about the same in B.C . and Canada, mostly because of large investments in the B.C. natural gas industry. This reflects the lower costs as fracking technology of drilling for natural gas has improved. Of course, the carbon tax was supposed to discourage that. Go carbon tax!
    Finally, before wagging their pudgy, ring covered fingers at us, let the Paris sight ‘seers’ turn the fact checkers loose on coal and who uses the most. Today, fossil fuels account for 87 percent of all energy used in China. Any focus on their increased use of renewables and the laugh inducing ‘Legacy’ treaty hides the fact that China’s reliance upon coal is predicted to keep growing. Predicted by whom you might ask. The Chinese, that’s who!
    From 2005 through 2011, China added roughly two 600-megawatt coal plants a week, for 7 straight years! U.S. government projections state that China will add yet another U.S. worth of coal plants over the next 10 years, or the equivalent of a new 600-megawatt plant every 10 days for 10 years. Some deal the Narcissist in Chief made, some legacy.
    China burns more than 4 billion tons of coal each year in power plants, homes, and factories. The U.S. burns less than 1 billion, the entire European Union burns 600 million. Canada burns 60 million. Projections for the U.S., Europe and Canada are for steady or decreasing coal use in the coming decades. China’s coal use is expected to keep increasing. By 2040, China’s coal power fleet will be 50 percent larger than it is today
    It is not just China by any means. The World Resources Institute (WRI) identified 1,200 coal plants in planning across 59 countries, with about three-quarters in China and India. The capacity of these new plants are the equivalent of adding another China. India is planning 455 new plants compared to 363 in China, which is seeing a slowdown in its coal investments after a vast building programme in the past decade. Hence the deal with the gullible Narcissist in Chief. They have wound down anyway so why not agree to. Duh!
    India is currently vying with China as the globe’s top consumer of coal, with 455 power plants preparing to come online. These coal plants in India’s pipeline (almost 100 more than China is preparing to build) would deliver only slightly less than pending new capacity in China.
    Indonesia and Australia are the largest coal exporters, with the latter planning to triple its mine and port capacity to almost 1bn tonnes a year. Full disclosure, coal reserves in Canada rank fifth largest in the world. We are also the 7th largest exporter. Many developing countries, such as Guatemala, Cambodia, Morocco, Namibia, Senegal, Sri Lanka and Uzbekistan are planning new coal-fired plants even when they produce almost no coal at all. Most new coal-fired plants will be built by Chinese or Indian companies.
    When you get all these guys in line give me a call. We do have responsibility to reduce emissions but the climate will do what it wants regardless. It always has and I’m not one for shaking my fist at the heavens. Canada does have some unique issues as do many other countries. To lock oneself into rhetoric and pretend otherwise does not advance the debate no matter what Potsdam, the IPCC and Paris may say.
    Here is a final point for the fact checkers. It is a rarely if ever mentioned measurement taken among the rich countries of the world. In it Canada is the second lowest per-square-kilometre emitter of greenhouse gases, behind only Australia. In order to match the reported “quotas” sure to be issued in Paris, Canada would not only need to shut down the Oil Sands, which emit less than our car industry, but the rest of our industry as well. We’ve done our bit. Talk to the others.
    P.S. I know Ontario and Quebec have massive carbon tax plans in the offing. They have nothing to do with the environment. It’s about the massive debts each Province has run up, gutting their manufacturing bases in the process. This is a tax grab, no more, no less. And oh yes, both Provinces are currently led by progressive, socially conscious Liberal governments. I rest my case.

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