Wednesday, December 22, 2010

New and Noteworthy (Critical Materials Strategy, HFC-23 Subsidies, "The Arc of Demographic Instability")

In today's edition, the very last of 2010:

* As a practical matter the transition to a post-fossil fuel economy is for the time being far more likely to entail a shift to a reliance on other kinds of resources rather than freedom from the limitations of the planet's resource base all but promised by those Thomas Homer-Dixon refers to as "economic optimists." This has raised questions about "post-fossil fuel energy security," reflected in discussions in recent months about rare earth metals. This month the U.S. Department of Energy released the Critical Materials Strategy report examining the role of rare earth metals (getting much more attention in recent months) and other materials (lithium, cobalt, indium, tellurium, gallium, etc.) in the "clean energy" economy.

The report (which is comprehensive, even if the vast area it covers means a great deal can only be touched on briefly) examines the use of particular materials in particular products (like batteries for electric vehicles, wind turbines, photovoltaic solar cells with thin-film conductors and fluorescent lighting systems) (chapter 2), historical supply and demand for the materials in question (chapter 3), current programs relating to those materials in the U.S. (chapters 4 and 5) and abroad (chapter 6), and projections about supply and demand (chapter 7). These are followed by an assessment of the criticality of supply in the short- and medium-term for each type of material (chapter 8). In its final chapter (chapter 9) the report outlines a strategy for securing supplies by diversifying the list of suppliers; identifying appropriate substitutes; and more efficient use, recycling and reuse of the necessary materials; with R & D, the encouragement of domestic production, and stockpiling and diplomacy all playing roles in the plan.

* A story in The New Scientist discussing yet another dark side to the "emissions trading" component of the Kyoto Treaty (on top of the way in which it encourages a redistribution of emissions allowances rather than emissions reduction)-specifically the incentivizing of enlarged production of a certain type of greenhouse gas, HFC-23. This is a useless but extremely climate-unfriendly byproduct of HFC-22), a refrigerant used in developing nations. The concern follows a demand by Chinese chemical companies that they receive a subsidy for destroying their HFC-23 stocks rather than releasing them into the air (vastly disproportionate to the cost of safe disposal, perhaps by a factor of 100), raising the specter of an overproduction of HFC-22 (and its byproduct HFC-23) to milk the system.

* By way of The New Security Beat, the Stimson Center article "Wither the Demographic Arc of Instability?" which offers a global overview of projected changes in the age structure of the world's countries (with a focus on the date at which the median age moves past 25)-significant because the zone of "youth bulge" countries largely overlaps with what has been variously termed the "Global Balkans," the "Non-Integrating Gap," or "The Arc of Instability" (from which the article's title is derived), encompassing those areas where armed conflict has been most frequent and bloody in recent decades. While Mexico, Central America, the Andean countries, much of the Caribbean, the whole African continent, southwestern, southern and southeastern Asia are presently inside this category (with Brazil only recently leaving it), the projection has the situation largely confined to sub-Saharan Africa by 2030 (with only a handful of exceptions, like Yemen, Afghanistan, the West Bank and Gaza). The item also offers a brief but useful history of the development of "political demography" as a field. Also at the Beat: a video featuring Joel E. Cohen (the author of 1995's classic How Many People Can the Earth Support?), and a repost of Robert Engelman's analysis of the role of demographics on climate change at the Worldwatch Institute's Transforming Cultures blog.

Happy Holidays.

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