This article was originally published on Sustaining Capabilities.

The modern age has been characterized by the skyrocketing use of a number of materials, including concrete, the most widely-used construction material in the world. It is so ubiquitous today that it is both hard to imagine a world without it, and easy to take it for granted. The basic foundation of concrete is cement, a remarkable material due to its combination of robustness and ability to be shaped into all manner of beautiful forms, and one which would seem futuristic if it weren’t thousands of years old. …

This article was originally published on Sustaining Capabilities.

The world is awash in data like never before, which is a good thing for global development — there are increasing returns to both more information, and better linkages across information types and sources. Indeed, the plight of the world’s poorest has improved considerably in many ways recently, partly because there is plentiful data available to inform evidence-based policymaking. Despite considerable progress, though, it seems likely that a lot of the value associated with plentiful data is related to the ability to ask better questions, rather than the ability to make better…

This article was originally published on Sustaining Capabilities.

There is a profound shift taking place in the way the world produces and consumes energy — from sources with high power densities and high carbon intensities, toward low power densities and low carbon intensities. In order to achieve such a transition fast enough to prevent the worst effects of climate change, a simultaneous reduction of existing fossil fuel assets and buildout of clean energy assets is needed. However, clean energy technologies still depend on natural resource extraction (technologies like wind turbines and solar panels are less energy dense than fossil fuels…

This article was originally published on Sustaining Capabilities.

The incredible crop yields made possible by modern, intensive agriculture have literally made it possible to feed the world. Fossil fuels, which are used to power mechanized cultivation and as feedstocks for fertilizers and pesticides, are central to intensive agriculture. Indeed, comparisons of historical energy returns to farming (the ratio of food energy harvested versus the energy needed to produce those harvests) clearly indicate two distinct eras: one dominated by food energy inputs for human and animal labor, and another dominated by fossil fuel inputs. …

This article was originally published on Sustaining Capabilities.

Every June, BP releases its annual benchmark publication, the Statistical Review of World Energy, which details trends in energy production and consumption over the course of the previous year. Since the report is backward-looking, this year’s does not include data reflecting the impacts of COVID-19 lockdowns. Interested readers can see summaries of past Statistical Reviews for comparison.

This Statistical Review comes with two interesting bits of metrology. First, BP reports energy consumption in units of exajoules, a standard metric unit. For the past 68 years, BP used million tonnes of oil equivalent…

This article was originally published on Sustaining Capabilities.

The global economy has faced a series of dramatic shocks related to the COVID-19 outbreak. While high-income countries have thrown money at their health systems and economies to dampen the hardship, many other countries lack the resources to do so. Emerging markets — a loose term that includes countries like Argentina, Brazil, Egypt, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mexico, South Africa, Taiwan, and Turkey — have been hit especially hard.

When comparing groups of countries, this author usually prefers measures of income. That is partly because it tells something real about well-being there — well-being…

This article was originally published on Sustaining Capabilities.

Poverty and development are intimately related, and COVID-19 provides an example of that connection as it continues to spread throughout the world. Combating poverty typically involves short-term, programmatic interventions, while promoting development usually consists of long-term, macro policies. These were long considered two separate fields, but in truth they are becoming ever-more intertwined.

Whereas the obvious solution to large migration flows was once a refugee camp, today’s poverty dynamics are such that the average refugee spends 17 years away from home, and 59% of refugees live in urban areas rather than established…

This article was originally published on Sustaining Capabilities.

The COVID-19 outbreak has dramatically changed daily life around the world. The global economy has ground to a halt as governments and individuals take unprecedented social distancing measures to “flatten the curve.” Everything humans do affects the natural environment in some way, and coronavirus-related changes to daily life present an interesting contrast to before the virus. …

This article was originally published on Sustaining Capabilities.

Cooling enables many things that are taken for granted in modern life, including keeping indoor spaces comfortable, and preserving food and medicine. Refrigeration works by boiling a refrigerant to remove heat from a space and condensing it to dump the heat outside, a cycle which needs a high rate of energy. Cooling requires a power density of around 28 W/m² of floor space for residential buildings and up to 190 W/m² for cold storage (for comparison, modern solar panels convert radiation into electricity at only 5–20 W/m² of panel area). …

This article was originally published on Sustaining Capabilities.

Humans produce a staggering 2bn tons of refuse annually, and rising. When managed poorly, it has a tendency to build up and cause problems for human health — it collects in the oceans, harming sea life; clogs sewer drains, leading to floods; and gets burned openly, causing respiratory illness. This carries enormous costs. The consultancy McKinsey calculated that disposing of a ton of trash by open burning or dumping into waterways costs south Asian countries $375 versus just $50–100 to dispose of properly, and the Moroccan government estimates that its $300m investment

Ryan McGuine

Badger engineer. Excited by the intersection of energy & global development. All articles were originally published on my blog: sustainingcapabilities.com.

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