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Weekend Briefing No. 398
Welcome to the weekend.
I’m going to do something a little different this week. Rather than my normal mix of articles, in honor of Climate Week, this briefing will be exclusively focused on climate change. Hope you enjoy. Let me know what you think.
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2 million—A post-COVID-19 increase in remote work and a decrease in the desire to fly may reduce oil demand by 2 million barrels per day by 2035.
2014—Fossil fuels are likely to play a major role in energy production until 2050. However, the projected peaks in demand for hydrocarbons are sooner than you might expect. Oil demand peaks in 2029 and gas in 2037, whereas coal likely peaked in 2014.
50—By 2035, 50% of global power generation will likely come from renewable sources.
Mars sucks. Its weather sucks. Its distance sucks. Its atmosphere sucks. The little water it has sucks. It has sucked for billions of years and will suck for billions more. You know what doesn’t suck? Me. Earth. I have life. I have vast oceans and lush forests. I have rivers to swim and air to breathe. But the way I’m being treated, that part sucks. You use me and pollute me. You overheat me. You use every resource I have and return very little back from where it came. And then you dream of Mars. A hellhole. A barren, desolate, wasteland you can’t set foot on fast enough. Why not use some of that creative energy and billions on saving me? You know, the planet that’s giving you what you need to live right now. Mars can wait. I can’t. marssucks.com (4 minutes)
Sinking seaweed could sequester a lot of carbon, but researchers are still grappling with basic questions about reliability, scalability and risks. Kelp has become an especially active area of inquiry and investment for sucking carbon out of the atmosphere. There’s already an industry that cultivates it on a large scale—and the theoretical carbon removal potential is significant. An expert panel assembled by the Energy Futures Initiative estimated that kelp has the capacity to pull down about 1 billion to 10 billion tons of carbon dioxide per year. But scientists are still grappling with fundamental questions about this approach. How much kelp can we grow? What will it take to ensure that most of the seaweed sinks to the bottom of the ocean? And how much of the carbon will stay there long enough to really help the climate? In addition, no one knows what the ecological impact of depositing billions of tons of dead biomass on sea floor would be. MIT Technology Review (8 minutes)
Fusion, the process that powers the stars, could be the cleanest energy source for humanity. We are already indirectly harvesting the power of fusion through solar energy. Being able to build fusion reactors would give us an “always on” version, independent of weather conditions. But why fund fusion at all, given that we don’t yet know how to do it? (1) It isn’t an either/or proposition. We can afford to build out renewable energy and investigate new forms of energy production at the same time because the latter—at least at this early stage of development—will require a comparatively trivial amount of money. (2) We are about to need a lot more electricity than we ever have. The global demand for carbon-free energy sources is set to triple by 2050. (3) There’s been tremendous progress in the necessary supporting technologies. Superconducting magnets for the magnetic-confinement approach to fusion have become much cheaper, lasers for inertial confinement fusion have become much more powerful, and breakthroughs in material science have made nanostructured targets available, which enable the use of completely new approaches to fusion. TechCrunch (6 minutes)
Bitcoin—A Battery or Sink?
Bitcoin has been railed in the media for its negative environmental impact as it consumes vast quantities of energy to support the system. In a recent blog post, Nick Grossman argues that bitcoin acts as a battery—moving electricity across time and space, from where it can be cheaply produced to where it can provide the most utility. In this response, Elad Verbin argues that Grossman’s economic analysis fails to consider the particularities of bitcoin’s mining mechanism. Bitcoin is not a battery; it is a bottomless sink for marginal-cost electricity. It doesn’t store energy to be deployed later; instead, it sucks marginal cheap energy and produces no marginal asset in return. The reason is simple: if bitcoin was a battery, then the more electricity you’d put into it, the more “charge” you’d get. But that’s not the case: in bitcoin, more electricity does not buy “more bitcoin”; rather it buys “more security”—a common good for the entire bitcoin system. Security is not an asset and cannot be later traded. As a result, bitcoin likely does not have the social utility that Grossman ascribes to it of promoting the production of cheap power. Lunar Ventures (11 minutes)
Is Recycling Worth It?
Recycling works, but it's not magic. As America continues to lead the world in per capita waste production, it's becoming clearer that everybody—from manufacturers to consumers—"over-believes" in recycling. This short documentary is a story about responsibility and what happens when everyone keeps trying to pass it off to the next person—and what happens, when finally, there is no next person. NPR (16 minutes)
Maine’s New Recycling Law
Recycling, that feel-good moment when people put their paper and plastic in special bins, was a headache for municipal government even in good times. Only a small amount was actually getting recycled. Then, five years ago, China stopped buying most of America’s recycling, and dozens of cities across the United States suspended or weakened their recycling programs. Now, Maine has implemented a new law that could transform the way packaging is recycled by requiring manufacturers, rather than taxpayers, to cover the cost. Essentially, these programs work by charging producers a fee based on a number of factors, including the tonnage of packaging they put on the market. Those fees are typically paid into a producer responsibility organization, a nonprofit group contracted and audited by the state. It reimburses municipal governments for their recycling operations with the fees collected from producers. Nearly all European Union member states, as well as Japan, South Korea and five Canadian provinces, have laws like these. They have seen their recycling rates soar and their collection programs remain resilient, even in the face of a collapse in the global recycling market caused in part by China’s decision in 2017 to stop importing other nations’ recyclables. New York Times (10 minutes)
Beneath the Ice
At first glance, Will Gadd and Jason Gulley were an odd pairing for an expedition. Will is one of the world’s top professional ice climbers. He’s sponsored by Red Bull. He’s won the X Games; ESPN’s extreme sports competition; and hung out with Jimmy Chin, a professional mountaineer and filmmaker. Jason, on the other hand, is a geology professor at the University of South Florida. He teaches undergraduates about the physics of groundwater. He’s hung out with scientists. They don’t exactly share the same social circles. But they came together to lead a scientific expedition into a previously unexplored territory beneath the Greenland ice sheet. In this short documentary, they venture into icy labyrinths to study their relationships with glacial melting and climate change. Red Bull (17 minutes)
Currency by Neal Stephenson. Daniel Waterhouse finds himself embroiled in a dark conflict that has been raging in the shadows for decades. It is a secret war between the brilliant, enigmatic Master of the Mint (and closet alchemist) Isaac Newton and his archnemesis, the insidious counterfeiter Jack the Coiner, aka Jack Shaftoe, King of the Vagabonds. Hostilities are suddenly moving to a new and more volatile level, as Jack plots a daring assault on the Tower of London itself, aiming for nothing less than the total corruption of Britain’s newborn monetary system. This is the seventh book in The Baroque Cycle, Neal Stephenson’s award-winning series, and spans the late 17th and early 18th centuries, combining history, adventure, science, invention, piracy and alchemy into one sweeping tale. It is a gloriously rich, entertaining and endlessly inventive historical epic populated by the likes of Isaac Newton, William of Orange, Benjamin Franklin and King Louis XIV, along with some of the most inventive literary characters in modern fiction. Amazon
Most Read Last Week
MVT—Instead of launching your startup with a Minimum Viable Product (MVP), test specific hypotheses that you have about a market. Evaluate the veracity of those hypotheses individually, using Minimum Viable Tests (MVT).
$10K Work—My friend Khe Hy is on a mission to get you to stop doing low-value work and focus your energy on work that really moves the needle.
Exponential Age—It’s hard for us to fathom exponential change, but our inability to do so could tear apart businesses, economies and the fabric of society.
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Saving our planet, lifting people out of poverty, advancing economic growth... these are one and the same fight. We must connect the dots between climate change, water scarcity, energy shortages, global health, food security and women's empowerment. Solutions to one problem must be solutions for all. – Ban Ki-Moon
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