The need for objectivity in the energy debate

I entered the debate on climate, energy and food because I am concerned about the planet and our future. Understandably, emotions run high and some views are extreme. At one extreme some people deny that the climate is warming and others deny that we are causing it, despite overwhelming scientific consensus to the contrary. Among such deniers are people in the business and political sectors, who fear the loss of livelihoods and prosperity.  

At another extreme I have come to realise that some people are apparently so fearful of climate change that they lose the objectivity needed to see the best way forward. These may be well-meaning socially-minded people who care passionately about the environment. They often come from a younger generation, arguably with a greater stake in the future. At this extreme, the view is advanced that a switch from fossil fuels to alternatives including wind and solar energy can simultaneously address the climate and energy challenges. The argument is further made that such a switch is largely a matter of policy decision and public education.

Meanwhile other commentators point out that alternatives such as wind, bio and solar energy are more expensive and less reliable than fossil fuel energy. This is extremely inconvenient for some environmentalists, so they may argue that this view is propagated by those with vested interests in the status quo. They point out as a counter argument that there is far more inherent energy in the wind and sun than we can possibly need, that it will continue in perpetuity and that using it does not liberate carbon dioxide into the environment. “All we need to do is harvest that energy”, they say.

The debate is unfortunately complicated by occurring at exactly the time in history when the human population is approaching its peak, and when the finite nature of resources has become obvious. Both extremes of the energy debate find these facts extremely inconvenient, so both are united in the over-optimistic belief that scientific ingenuity and investment in technology will find ways to maintain supplies of energy and essential materials, and feed a population of 9+ billion while not polluting the environment.

The objective assessment is that both extremes are wrong. The evidence says that fossil fuels cause climate change and alternative energies are more expensive and less versatile than fossil fuel energy. Building the alternative energy infrastructure will require large amounts of expensive and finite materials such as rare earth elements, and can only be achieved by consuming fossil fuels in mining, refining, manufacturing and transport. As the oil price escalates, so does the cost of all energy, of whatever type. Our present societies are built on the consumption of fossil fuels not only for mining, manufacturing and transport, but also for food production, chemical feedstocks, plastics, bitumen, communication, entertainment, leisure and fighting wars. The notion that we can simply change our source of energy to replace fossil fuels has become an ideology or faith, with many followers. Ironically many businesses are exploiting followers of this faith by selling them ‘sustainable solutions’ such as hybrid cars or solar panels.

Fossil fuels are still the most efficient and cost effective way of providing energy and resources for our prosperity. No nation is going to introduce policy to cut greenhouse gas emissions if it compromises its wealth and the employment of its people. Once the relatively easy measures have been adopted and deployed, actions to achieve more substantial reductions will not be tolerated by society due to the associated loss of prosperity and jobs. The debate about energy provision and reduction in carbon dioxide emissions needs to accept the realities. No amount of lobbying and campaigning is going to lead our society to willingly accept a wholesale switch away from fossil fuels to alternatives such as wind and solar in the immediate future.

The major energy companies have already planned for continued increases in fossil fuel consumption. One estimate is that $300 trillion will be invested in building cities to accommodate an extra million people every week for the next 30 years (mostly in Asia). This can only be done with fossil fuel energy. Some estimates anticipate increased global consumption of about 60% more fossil fuels (mostly gas and coal) by 2050, including increased consumption in the wealthy western countries. Building the infrastructure for a further 90 million Americans and 15 million Australians will require massive fossil fuel consumption.

The ‘green’ lobby does itself no favours by over-estimating the potential of alternative energy. Too much of it is wishful thinking, unrealistic and emotional. While they label as ‘deniers’ those who refuse to accept the reality that we are causing the climate to change, in return some deny the reality that fossil fuels are far more efficient and effective at providing energy than the sun, the wind or even nuclear fission. And they do not accept that alternative energy sources are finite, arguing instead that the resources used to operate a society based on non-fossil fuel energy can be recycled indefinitely with 100 % efficiency. The reality is that recycling of resources is inefficient, costly and dirty even in an energy-rich fossil-fuel world, and will be more difficult in a world fueled by solar and wind energy. So as we reach peak resources in the coming decades, the energy available to society will also peak.

These highly polarised and emotional arguments (‘denials’) hinder progress towards making sensible policy decisions that can improve our wellbeing. It is perhaps understandable when the effects of global warming are so potentially catastrophic, that concerned people pin their hopes on the energy of the sun. But unfortunately they are blinded by the light into thinking that the solution is simple, when it is not. The future should be bright, not when pinned on the false hope of using alternative energy to maintain the current materialistic lifestyle, but only when we realise that we will be forced to drastically change the way we live, arguably for the better.

Further reading and discussion

Hughes, J.D. Hydrocarbons in North America. In: the Post Carbon Reader: Managing the 21st Century’s Sustainability Crisis. Richard Heinberg and Daniel Lerch, eds. (Healdsburgh, CA: Watershed Media, 2010).

Kramer, Gert Jan and Haigh, M (2009) No quick switch to low carbon energy. Nature 462, 568-569.

Signals and Signposts: Shell energy scenarios to 2050 (published 2011).

Paul Hawken: The Red Queen Dilemma (2011)