Overcoming fossil dependence and building the world we want

Don’t you hate it when people who use fossil fuel based products for everything from travel to medicine to telecommunications criticize the fossil fuel industry or say that we shouldn’t build big new fossil fuel projects? We have a civilization that depends so much on fossil fuels, and yet these environmentalists want us to stop investing in them and to move to other forms of energy!

I have seen this general objection many times. Here’s a sample:

  • @rigger1977 — You start the march Milan. Throw away all products made from petroleum.
  • @trevormarr1 — Milan, @JustinTrudeau and @RachelNotley please list 10 things you use daily that exist strictly GREEN & will not require any oil/fossil fuel influence in their existence, we can wait! Try not to look like a hypocrite as you waste Canada’s opportunity! Let’s see how GREEN u live?
  • @glen_lees — If there are all these options one would expect that you use zero fossil fuels
  • @MHallFindlay — Personal insults don’t add to the debate. Just curious: When was the last time you flew somewhere or drove a car? Demand is a key component.
  • @CdnLadybug — And do you drive a car, use a cell phone or any products whereby oil products have been used to produce it? ALL forms of energy necessary.
  • @sinclair_pam — You yourself preaching from a fossil fuel device…how will you keep the hysteria alive without social media…brought to you by fossil fuels
  • @jglapski — You used fossil fuels tweeting this hypocrisy.
  • @aybren — So how will you stay warm this winter when you stop using all fossil fuel products?
  • @brucelabongbong — If you hate oil and it’s products……stop using them….simple…..
  • @lamphieryeg — Tell you what, Milan. When you give up fossil fuels, let us know. Till then, see ya.

Yes, environmentalists do want to end investment in fossil fuels and shift instead to other forms of energy. And your hypocrisy objection is a lot less substantial than it may seem.

There are three parts to the counterargument: climate change makes it necessary to move on from fossil fuels, we have alternatives to them as both sources of energy and feedstocks, and system change happens at the political level and not at the level of individual choice.

Let’s begin.

1. Climate change makes it necessary to replace fossil fuel energy

Whenever we burn coal, oil, or gas we add carbon dioxide (CO2) to the atmosphere. That greenhouse gas reduces the amount of infrared (longwave) radiation which the Earth emits to space. This is incontrovertibly well established. We can directly observe the reduced outgoing radiation as well as the resulting temperature increase, since energy that isn’t being lost to space inevitably warms the planet system.

Describing all the consequences of warming so far exceeds the sensible scope for any blog post. The authoritative source is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Their fifth assessment report covers impacts from sea level rise to loss of glaciers and snowpack, worse extreme weather, more serious wildfires, the acidification of the oceans from CO2 in the atmosphere, adverse effects on agriculture, and adverse impacts on human health. A report I helped write for the University of Toronto goes through many different forms of harm and the evidence for each of them (p. 25–60). All these impacts worsen as the level of CO2 rises.

The consequences to date are bad, but it’s vital to understand that the harm arising from fossil fuel use is delayed. It takes decades for the greenhouse gasses (GHGs) added to the atmosphere to have their full effect. In this sense it’s a bit like the delayed effects of alcohol. If you drink two bottles of wine in 20 minutes you probably won’t feel too drunk at minute 21, but you have set yourself up to be excessively drunk once the wine has entered your blood and brain. However bad climate change’s effects are today, that’s just a taste of what is already coming, and far far worse will be coming if we don’t stop adding GHGs to the atmosphere.

How bad could it get? Since the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was negotiated in 1992 a consensus has emerged among scientists and policy-makers that warming the planet by more than 2 ˚C above pre-industrial temperatures would be “dangerous”. Some communities face grave risks at much lower levels of warming as even small amounts of sea level rise and other disruption threaten them. Under a “business as usual” scenario, the IPCC expects global CO2 to rise from the present level of about 400 parts per million (ppm) to over 700 ppm by the end of the century, with a corresponding temperature rise of over 4 ˚C. That doesn’t sound like much in the context of the weather outside or where you set your thermostat, but that kind of climate change is massively beyond anything anatomically modern human beings have experienced in the 300,000 years or so that our species has existed in its current form.

All around the world, human systems have been built to function in the climate where they now exist, based on centuries of experience that the sea level is always at more or less the same height, rivers have a certain volume, certain areas are good for growing crops, etc. Causing warming of well over 2 ˚C would invalidate all those assumptions, producing enormous challenges for human beings everywhere, massive new flows of migration, and almost certainly military conflicts as desperate people from one area are forcibly blocked from moving somewhere else. That’s the kind of world we get for people who are young today if we keep using fossil fuels and, because CO2 remains in the atmosphere for long periods of time, that disruption would continue for thousands of years.

As James Gustave Speth explains:

How serious is the threat to the environment? Here is one measure of the problem: all we have to do to destroy the planet’s climate and biota and leave a ruined world for our children and grandchildren is to keep doing exactly what we are doing today, with no growth in the human population or the world economy.

Sticking with fossil fuels is an option, but it’s an option with almost unimaginably horrible consequences. If we care at all about the welfare of those who will live on the Earth after us, we need to do our utmost to stop choking the atmosphere with CO2.

2. We have alternatives for both energy and raw materials

There is actually far more renewable energy available than there is in fossil fuels. That can be worked out intuitively as follows. Even if we used 100% of global fossil fuel production to try to heat the oceans, if the sun stopped warming the Earth they would nonetheless cool and eventually freeze to the bottom. My MIT Physics of Energy reference card says that the solar power incident on Earth is 174 petawatts (million billion watts). A large nuclear reactor has about one gigawatt of output, so the sun constantly striking the planet has energy akin to about 200 million large nuclear reactors (whereas we have actually built about 400 of them). The same card shows that complete fission of 1 kg of uranium 235 would produce 77 terajoules of energy, whereas monthly US electricity consumption is about 1 million terajoules. We can’t actually capture and use all the energy in either of those cases, but those figures can give us some initial hope about energy options aside from fossil fuels.

Cambridge physicist David MacKay released a free book that goes through all of our energy generation options, including fossil fuels with carbon capture, and the end result is that it’s entirely possible to have a global civilization where everyone alive gets as much energy as the average European today without altering the climate. It requires a vast new global energy infrastructure based on some combination of climate-safe options, but we need to keep massively investing in energy regardless of what form we choose. Keeping the global fossil fuel industry going will cost tens of trillions of dollars per decade according to the International Energy Agency. Is it smarter to invest that money in fossil fuel energy which has volatile prices, is unevenly distributed, and which theatens to wreck the habitability of the planet or is it smarter to invest in a post-fossi-fuel decarbonized global economy which can support human prosperity indefinitely?

In addition to pointing out how 85% of global energy use comes from fossil fuels, people who advocate continued investment in the industry point to the importance of fossil fuels as a feedstock, often pointing out how electronics or medical equipment are made using fossil fuels. The main response to that is that we use fossil fuels as feedstocks because the technology to do so is broadly distributed, and fossil fuels are cheap because we ignore most of the costs their use imposes on others. Fossil fuels aren’t made of anything special chemically. We can get carbon and hydrogen from all sorts of carbon-neutral sources. It’s just a question of investing in the right capabilities and breaking our dependence on old feedstocks and processes. We need new ways to make agricultural fertilizer without natural gas, run farming equipment without diesel, manufacture steel without coke, and make low-carbon concrete or concrete substitutes. That doesn’t need to happen all at once, and some fossil fuel uses will be much harder to displace than others, but the sensible thing to do is to start with the cheapest and easiest substitutions and work from there toward the harder ones. That’s a big part of what carbon prices of various sorts are meant to achieve.

3. How change happens

If your town is dumping untreated sewage into a river which then flows past other towns where people use the water for drinking, you might rightly object to the choice your community is making. Is the solution to build a home sewage treatment plant so that your share of the problem goes away? Or is it perhaps to stop urinating and defecating altogether?

In this case, it’s obvious that the only way to meaningfully change the situation is to convince the general public and decision makers to change the system for everyone. Exactly the same dynamic applies to climate change. It may be laudable when individuals work to reduce their personal CO2 footprint, but we all live in a society where fossil fuels are dominant. A slight reduction in demand arising from the voluntary choices of a few concerned people won’t resolve that.

If we want to prevent a global catastrophe arising from fossil fuel use we need to go way beyond what voluntary consumer choice and the operation of markets will do alone. We need top level political change and the replacement of today’s leaders, parties, and policies with new ones that appreciate the seriousness of our problem and who share the determination to overcome it. That’s part of what tweets opposing new fossil fuel projects are meant to achieve, and that’s why it’s rather missing the point to call out the people making them for not having zero personal emissions.

There are huge opportunities to be captured in the transition to global decarbonization. To begin with, we can overcome all the problems caused by fossil fuels. That includes climate change, of course, but there is also the way fossil fuel profits fund unsavoury regimes (another favourite weak twitter argument is that opposing new fossil fuel infrastructure in Canada is akin to professing love for Russia and Saudi Arabia), the air and water pollution, the habitat destruction, and all the problems that arise from fossil fuel price volatility. We can also build a dramatically more equal global energy system, replacing the one where a privileged subset fly constantly and live in massive poorly insulated houses with one where everyone on Earth has what they need to live a safe, dignified, and prosperous life. Getting there might require deep changes in our political and economic systems, and it will likely put an end to activities that are only possible with wasteful and intense fossil fuel use, but moving to an equitable arrangement is surely better for most of those alive today as well as for most of those who will follow us in the future.

Beyond all that, we have a chance to move from the energy system that has been built in the 250 years since the industrial revolution — which relies on resources which are non-renewable and located primarily in a few parts of the world, and which is causing climate change that threatens a planetary catastrophe within our lifetime — to an energy system that relies on the energy constantly bombarding the Earth from the sun, the leftover heat deep inside the planet, and fissionable materials. That new energy system could power human civilization indefinitely, allowing for thousands more years of safe and enjoyable human lives; the continued development of art, culture, medicine, and scientific knowledge; and the preservation of the beauty and sheer existence of the countless species now being driven towards extinction by our fossil fuel use.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

9 thoughts on “Overcoming fossil dependence and building the world we want”

  1. On the Swedish shore of the Baltic Sea near the Arctic Circle, work has started on a SKr1.4bn ($150m) pilot project aiming to help Sweden become the first country in the world to produce fossil-free steel. Martin Pei, the engineer behind the project, promises that by 2020, passengers flying to the nearby Luleå airport will be able to look down on a 50-metre-high test plant. “We need to hurry up, because ‘Winter is coming’,” quips the Chinese-born engineer. Or should that be global warming?

  2. Bill McKibben wrote a piece on this:

    “If those of us who are trying really hard are still fully enmeshed in the fossil fuel system, it makes it even clearer that what needs to change are not individuals but precisely that system. We simply can’t move fast enough, one by one, to make any real difference in how the atmosphere comes out. Here’s the math, obviously imprecise: maybe 10 percent of the population cares enough to make strenuous efforts to change — maybe 15 percent. If they all do all they can, in their homes and offices and so forth, then, well . . . nothing much shifts. The trajectory of our climate horror stays about the same.

    But if 10 percent of people, once they’ve changed the light bulbs, work all-out to change the system? That’s enough. That’s more than enough. It would be enough to match the power of the fossil fuel industry, enough to convince our legislators to put a price on carbon.

    But it’s become utterly clear that doing the right thing in your personal life, or even on your campus, isn’t going to get the job done in time; and it may be providing you with sufficient psychic comfort that you don’t feel the need to do the hard things it will take to get the job done. It’s in our role as citizens — of campuses, of nations, of the planet — that we’re going to have to solve this problem.”

    The agricultural revolution couldn’t have happened through a few individuals choosing to start to plant crops, and the industrial revolution couldn’t have happened through people mining their own coal for home-made steam engines. Decarbonization needs to be a process that happens at the scale of all of humanity and the pathways to achieving that are political, not personal.

  3. Synthetic hydrocarbons

    Regarding your Technology quarterly on decarbonising the global economy (December 1st), there is much talk of the alternative energy carriers and their associated logistical networks that can replace hydrocarbons. Hydrogen is one, but other compounds, such as ammonia or methanol continue to be considered. But there is no reason why a net zero carbon system cannot be based upon the same hydrocarbon fuels and infrastructure that power society today. The key difference is that they would be synthetic hydrocarbons (rather than the naturally occurring variety) built from a carbon recycling system where CO2 is pulled from the air and reacted with hydrogen to form a drop-in fuel that can be used in natural-gas heating systems, cars, trucks, or planes.

    There are two reasons why synthetic hydrocarbons are downplayed. First is the incorrect thinking that a net zero carbon society must use an energy carrier that does not contain carbon. Educating policymakers on this point is a must. The second is that synthetic hydrocarbons are more expensive on a unit basis than simply using hydrogen. The latter point is true, but should be an impetus for r&d.

    Synthetic hydrocarbons are compelling for pragmatic reasons. By developing “drop-in” substitutes, the hydrocarbon users and logistic system—cars, pipelines and so on—can be used as is. The unit cost of the fuel is more expensive, but the large upfront cost of replacing the hydrocarbon system is largely averted. Moreover, all those cars, pipelines and chemical facilities have voters and political interests behind them. By making them part of the solution, rather than left out in the cold, you obtain a coalition with its interests preserved in the new low carbon world.

    If we had the luxury of building the energy system from scratch, hydrogen would play a big role. Substitutes that can slot into existing systems are the ones we should collectively pursue.

    Professor Tim Lieuwen
    Georgia Institute of Technology

  4. Manufacturing energy and greenhouse gas emissions associated with plastics consumption

    Plastics are a ubiquitous part of modern life, but their accumulation in landfills and leakage into the natural environment is now recognized as a global environmental crisis. In response to this massive waste challenge, the scientific community is vigorously pursuing new technologies that can enable displacement of fossil-based carbon feedstocks with bio-based or waste-sourced feedstocks, greener manufacturing of plastics, and development of new approaches that will enable recycling of waste plastics to a much greater extent. The current study provides baseline supply chain energy and greenhouse gas emissions data for the consumption of major plastics in the United States, with the intention that these estimates will serve as a useful benchmark for evaluating new circular economy-focused technologies.

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