The United Nations and the majority of scientists around the world are agreed that Climate change is a reality. There is less agreement as to the degree to which human activity contributes to it, though the leaning is toward us having some degree of responsibility for this state of affairs. This, understandably, has caused much concern among the peoples of the world and is a ‘hot’ topic of debate currently at the UN.
The immediateness of the concern, especially expressed by green groups, is that climate change is not a problem for future generations only, but is something happening now and having very real consequences. In popular opinion, melting ice caps, wild weather and most recently, the devastating cyclone to hit Vanuatu, are interpreted as the consequences of climate change making themselves felt.
This interpretation generates a sense of urgency and passion in the debate. The major focus of this debate on the political arena is in terms of the economy and its reliance on fossil fuels. Green groups would like to see an end to the use of fossil fuels and its replacement with renewable energy resources in order to drastically cut carbon dioxide emissions in the hope of averting an environmental disaster of biblical proportions. I too feel this sense of fear and urgency. However, realistically appraising the situation has led me to conclude that such a dramatic change of energy resources is not only unlikely, given the way the world economy works, but appears also to be impossible. What then is possible in the short term and the long term?
Three arguments presented by green groups for giving up fossil fuels are: (1) that we will soon run out of them anyway; (2) that alternative sources of energy will price them out of the marketplace; and (3) that we cannot afford the climate consequences of burning them. Unfortunately, the reality is more complicated. The world economic reliance on fossil fuels and the lack of any current viable alternative make it impossible to stop relying on them, at least for some years to come. Indeed, a more realistic assessment of our energy and environmental situation suggests that, for decades to come, we will continue to rely overwhelmingly on fossil fuels.
Currently, about 87% of the energy that the world consumes comes from fossil fuels. The three categories of use are: oil used mainly for transport; gas used mainly for heating; and coal used mainly for electricity. But there has been an encouraging environmental trend: a diminishing amount of carbon-dioxide emissions per unit of energy produced. The biggest contribution to decarbonising the system has been the switch from high-carbon coal to lower-carbon gas in electricity generation. Again, unfortunately, renewable energy sources currently amount to so small a percentage of energy used that it has not made much of an impact on overall world reliance on fossil fuels.
The first argument that fossil fuels will soon run out is no longer viable. The collapse of the price of oil over that past six months is the result of abundance. An inevitable consequence of the high oil prices of recent years has stimulated innovation in hydraulic fracturing, horizontal drilling, seismology and information technology. The shale revolution has only just started and has yet to go global too. When it does, oil and gas in tight rock formations will yield ample supplies of hydrocarbons for decades, if not centuries. Also lurking in the wings for later technological breakthroughs is methane hydrate, a sea floor source of gas that exceeds in quantity all the world’s coal, oil and gas put together.
There are of course concerns about the process of fracking and the contamination of underground water. This is a concern that I share, and strongly believe more research needs to be done to ensure we do not set ourselves up for such a diabolical disaster in our hunger for energy. There are strong passionate opinions amongst green groups that we should not permit fracking at all, the risk being too great. Again, realistically speaking, I don’t think we will be able to put the shale genie back in the bottle, given the promise it holds for such a cheap and abundant supply of energy. However, there is hope in the sense that, while some processes for shale oil and gas extraction are risky (such as the Linc energy process, where they fire gas underground rather than just extract the methane that is naturally present), the extraction of methane in the rock naturally is far less risky as it actually takes the ground water out with the gas and then puts it through reverse osmosis before it is used in farming, hence its quality is better than normal bore water.
The second argument for giving up fossil fuels is that new rivals will shortly price them out of the market. But this is not happening. The world’s nuclear output is down from 6% of world energy consumption in 2003 to 4% today. Nuclear’s problem is the costs required in meeting the safety concerns of environmentalists, politicians and regulators. It is only able to compete with fossil fuels when it is subsidised.
As for renewable energy, hydro-electric is the biggest and cheapest supplier, but it has the least capacity for expansion. Technologies that tap the energy of waves and tides remain unaffordable and impractical. Geothermal is a minor player for now, and bioenergy – that is wood, ethanol made from corn or sugar cane, or diesel made from palm oil – is proving an ecological disaster. It encourages deforestation and food-price hikes that cause devastation among the world’s poor, and per unit of energy produced, it creates even more carbon dioxide than coal. Incidentally, the switch in the Western world to the use of coal actually halted and then reversed the deforestation of Europe and North America, and the turn to oil halted the slaughter of the world’s whale and seal populations for their blubber.
Wind power has inched up to 1% of world energy consumption in 2013. Solar has not even managed that. Both wind and solar are entirely reliant on subsidies for economic viability. To be sure, the costs of renewable energy are coming down, especially in the case of solar. But even if solar panels were free, the power they produce would still struggle to compete with fossil fuel – except in some very sunny locations – because of all the capital equipment required to concentrate and deliver the energy. This is to say nothing of the great expanses of land on which solar facilities must be built and the cost of retaining sufficient conventional generator capacity to guarantee supply on a dark, cold, windless evening. The two fundamental problems that renewable energies face are that they take up too much space and produce too little energy.
There is also the problem of maintaining the stability of the electrical grid, as it is clearly acknowledged in Europe that increased generation from solar and wind is causing grid instability and hence they have to reinvest in large generators that can maintain the Hz and voltage of the grid with very large fluctuating loads. This leads to a fair bit of waste energy as you have to have the generating capacity spinning if not generating so it can take up the slack at very short notice. It is a very difficult thing to control a grid and ensure you don’t get a cascading failure across it as took place a few years ago in north-west USA.
And what of developing economies? Currently, more than a billion people on the planet have yet to get access to electricity and to experience the leap in living standards that abundant energy brings. Whatever we do, we will have to try and ensure that developing economies are not condemned to poverty by imposing on them rules preventing them from having access to an affordable source of energy. And, for developed economies such as our own, it is highly unlikely that people will want to take a drastic reduction in the quality of the lifestyle they have grown accustomed to. To throw away these immense economic and social benefits, you would have to have a very good reason. It depends on the urgency and fear concerning climate change.
Realistically, it would be wise to do something to cut down emissions, so long as that something does not hurt the poor and those struggling to reach a modern standard of living. We will have to ensure that these developing countries who cannot manage nuclear or gas have efficient coal generating capacity, through tri-generation plants that make much better use of waste energy from the primary coal generation, which they currently do not have. For developed countries, we should invest in research on ways to absorb carbon dioxide from the air. We should continue developing solar power and electricity storage, while at the same time use proven existing technologies that reduce carbon-dioxide emissions such as switching from coal to gas in the generation of electricity, provide incentives for energy efficiency, perhaps re-look at getting nuclear power back on track if we really fear climate change but don’t want to change our life-style in a dramatic way.