Oil, gas, and coal are all – at best – transitional sources of energy, moving us from muscle power to truly renewable non-muscle sources. To see why, there are two basic facts that must be appreciated:
- Only finite quantities of fossil fuels exist on Earth.
- Burning all the world’s coal, oil, and gas would cause catastrophic climate change.
It is as though there are two hard barriers to fossil fuel use out there. What we don’t know is how far away they are. The first fact is self-evident, though it is more nuanced to say that there is a finite quantity of fossil fuel that can be extracted for any particular level of price or effort. If oil cost $10,000 a barrel, we would be able to find some pretty unusual geological sources for it. The second fact arises from the basics of climatic science. We have already increased atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gasses from about 290 parts per million (ppm) to 385 ppm. Continuing to run our economy as we have been (bigger every year, and largely powered by coal, oil, and gas), that figure will be approaching 1000 ppm by the end of the century. Based on the climatic sensitivity estimates of the IPCC and Met Office, that would likely produce 5.5 to 7.1 ° C of warming by 2100, with more to follow afterwards. That would be utterly catastrophic for humanity, quite possibly threatening our ability to endure as a species. We will either stop using fossil fuels, or we will die in the process of trying to burn them all. Due to lags in the climate system, we just might be able to burn them all and leave it to another generation to suffer the fatal consequences.
A useful analogy is that of a factory worker taking methamphetamines to stay awake. This is essentially what all of society is doing with fossil fuels: giving ourselves an unsustainable jolt that gets things moving faster. Of course, extended and heavy use of amphetamines will eventually kill you. If that lethal toxic effect is likely to be achieved before you run out of pills, you are presented with a barrier just as impassable and just as real as the difficulty of their eventual and total depletion.
As such, those who invest in fossil fuel infrastructure and equipment and processes that depend on fossil fuels need to appreciate that this is an industry that will need to peak and then be wound down, even though oil, gas, and coal remain in the ground to be extracted. Greater efficiency of use and technologies like carbon capture and storage can somewhat extend the timeline across which that will need to occur. All the same, a world with a stable climate will be a world that does not use fossil fuels for energy. If we want that stable climate to be one compatible with human welfare, civilization, and prosperity, we must hope that it is established sooner rather than later.
[Update: 8 March 2010]. BuryCoal.com is a site dedicated to making the case for leaving coal, along with unconventional oil and gas, underground.