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Energy future – why we can’t afford to stick with fossil fuels

You probably won’t have missed the media coverage of late around the affordability of low-carbon energy. In the UK, Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), solar PVC and wind have all been in the headlines due to their current (relatively) high cost. And the announcement in September 2011 by Cuadrilla of a potential indigenous fossil fuel resource in the form of shale gas has further divided opinion on which energy options we should be pursuing.

Advocates for shale gas exploitation – Christopher Booker and Lord Lawson to name two – have had a field day, asking why we are committing large amounts of taxpayers’ money to expensive technologies when there are cheaper alternatives, alternatives that lend themselves very well to existing industrial capability (eg in gas). Why, they ask, are we paying to establish new industries that will take decades to mature, when we can ill afford to do so?

From an economic perspective, the question might seem fair enough. After all, who would back the expensive option over the cheaper when the result – meeting energy demand – is the same?

But that’s a myopic view, thanks to one almighty elephant in the room: climate change. One of the largest and most well-known pieces of analysis into the global economic impacts of climate change is the 2006 Stern Review, where the author compares the economic costs of acting on climate change through investment in greenhouse gas abatement against GDP loss in an unmitigated climate change scenario. Stern concluded that to mitigate climate change would cost the world around 1% of GDP per year. He also concluded that to take no action would end up costing between 5% and 20% of GDP – and possibly even more – each and every year as climate change takes hold and its impacts affect global economic output. On current World Bank estimates, 1% of global GDP is in the region of $630billion. 20% is $12.6trillion. That’s some case for action.

What saddens me is how some commentators choose to stoke debate around whether the world can afford to act on climate change as if it’s a choice we have to make. It shouldn’t be a choice – mitigating climate change should be practically an unconscious reflex action befitting the most intelligent species on the planet. The argument that we cannot afford to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to the extent that is needed just makes no sense because ultimately, what’s more important – short-term economic interest, or the healthy functioning of the natural systems upon which seven billion people – including you and me – depend, entirely, for their existence?

To advocate, seriously, for continued unabated fossil fuel use over clean energy technology is, in my humble opinion, breathtakingly short-sighted. Economically and environmentally, a fossil fuelled future is about the most expensive energy choice we could make; and far from being unaffordable, if deployed at sufficient scale low-carbon energy technologies (CCS, wind and solar for example) offer a significant part of the solution to climate change and we should be ploughing ahead. In the coming decades as the effects of climate change bite, a maturing low-carbon global energy system offers a viable future both for the climate and in consequence the world’s economy. An obsolete fossil-fuel energy infrastructure does not.

The conclusion from Stern’s appraisal of the economics of climate change is crystal clear. The science of climate change defines the scale of the threat the world faces with similar clarity. So I agree entirely with Booker, Lawson et. al that we cannot afford to back the expensive energy option. Which is why I believe clean energy technology is the only energy option we have.

15 Responses to “Energy future – why we can’t afford to stick with fossil fuels”

  1. Hi Jonathan,
    The current problem of ‘climate change’ is due to GLOBAL WARMING which in turn is the result of our past discovery of ‘STEAM POWER’ and uncontrolled utilization of ‘FOSSIL FUELS’ at the advent of INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION. At that time, the policy makers, scientists and engineers did not judge the fate and impact of that industrial revolution. UNIPCC2007 report has predicted dark future of the earth. The EARTH POLES will become warmer which will result into rise in sea water level. In tropical regions desertification and drought will increase while in temperate regions more rainfall is expected. Thus, global cropping pattern will change and will result into fall in agriculture production. Dramatic collapse of Arctic sea ice, this year, is the sign of disaster to come much sooner; due to this process, area of open water will increase and will result into Ocean Warming and Acidification. The main GHG responsible for climate change is carbon dioxide. The life time of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is more than 100 years. The high concentration of these gases, trap more infra-red radiation [I.R.] and remit back I.R. to earth’s surface resulting in global warming. THIS IS ALARMING. Immediate actions are MUST, to be taken. So, world leaders and community must take actions to control and stop Climate Change, because carbon emissions are rising rapidly.
    Here are few suggestions, which need urgent attention:
    1. There should be a “WORLD COMMISSION FOR SCIENCE AND DEVELOPMENT” for promoting the researches and developmental works which have zero to low carbon emission.
    2. There should a compulsory constitutional amendment to make “ENVIRONMENTAL WAY OF LIFESTYLE”, a compulsory duty.
    3. Our investment in R & D should be more on the development of “RENEWABLE ENERGY” like solar, tidal, wind and water energies, apart from developing “low carbon emission technologies”.
    4. There should be a big role for N.G.Os. in implementing environment friendly plans & projects of government.
    5. There should be effective “AWARENESS programmes at grass root level”, to save the environment from degradation.
    6. Carbon capping should not be the one way legislation programme against developing nations. DEVELOPED nations should provide financial help and green technology transfer to DEVELOPING nations, to phase-out the fossil fuels.
    7. There should be a INTERNATIONAL CLIMATE CHANGE FUND, under UN, to fight with the anomalies and disasters due to Climate Change.
    Such steps are big BUT compulsory to save BLUE PLANET from GREEN HOUSE EFFECT and CLIMATE CHANGE.

    Regards

    Prabhat Misra

  2. Ross Grant says:

    Why do we not hear more about Thorium nuclear power? This is a potential source of nuclear energy based on Thorium, which is more plentiful than unranium, and which is cheaper to construct, less dangerous, and does not produce arms-potential waste. Surely, this is an option that the government should be aware of, and discussing?

    http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/en/kirk_sorensen_thorium_an_alternative_nuclear_fuel.html

    Ross

  3. Paddy Macdonald says:

    Hi Jonathan, thanks for your response.

    It was partly reading MacKay’s book (this is a “must read” in my opinion) that prompted my response. MacKay states (Page 109) “I fear the maximum Britain would ever get from renewables is in the ballpark of 18 kWh per day per person…. the average British consumption is 125 kWh per day per person”. He backs up this comment with figures from five sources.

    I suggest nuclear power, like it or love should not have been ignored, even if it is not a specialist area. Check out Bill Gate’s “TED” lecture at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JaF-fq2Zn7I for his take on energy and climate change challenges.

    Regards,
    Paddy

  4. I agree entirely, but there is a bigger arguement that seems to be swept aside on the tide of enthusiasm for new technology. Our inefficient use of the energy we create. The cheapest and often simplest way of reducing cost and CO emissions is to insulate and improve the fabric of the buildings we live in. Combine the two and we are on the way to making an impact.

    • Jonathan Hood says:

      Hi Toby

      I think the energy efficiency point is a very good one. Whilst clean energy technology needs to be a part of the solution to decarbonising the global energy system, reducing energy demand (eg through energy efficiency measures) is also very important. The International Energy Agency’s 2011 World Energy Outlook looks at global abatement measures needed to keep atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations at or below 450 parts per million, and relative to the New Policies Scenario, amongst the five key areas of abatement identified efficiency is the largest single share.

      Best wishes,

      J

  5. Jon Gething says:

    Why do you continue to include CCS as part of the future when it is almost certainly an impossible, if not dangerous path to take. It is simply a sop to the fossil fuel industry that there is a future for them. They can carry on building climate damaging plants with the “promise” that CCS will come along and save the planet. A very dangerous assumption.

    • Jonathan Hood says:

      Hi Jon

      I agree that to treat CCS as a panacea is dangerous, because CCS is one of a number of greenhouse gas abatement options and on its own is not projected to deliver sufficient greenhouse gas abatement under the 450 Scenario. The solution to reducing global emissions at the necessary scale needs to be realised through a combination of measures. However, I don’t agree that CCS is almost certainly an impossible path to take. To draw on the International Energy Agency’s 2011 World Energy Outlook, under the 450 Scenario nearly a quarter of global emissions (22%) needs to be abated by CCS in 2035. Given the increasing use of coal in meeting global primary energy demand, CCS is essential under the International Energy Agency 450 Scenario.

      Best wishes,

      J

  6. Rex Gaisford says:

    All comments don’t have to be negative ones.
    I think you said it perfectly. I have 6 grandchildren and I want them to inherit a healthy planet.
    Let’s get going, stop messing about and show the world how to function responsibly.

    • Eric Hawkins says:

      Rex, I 100% agree with your point of veiw which I have been banging on about since I first put my business future into designing energy and water solutions
      I am currently working and living in Shanghai, China after 12 years developing solar water heating collectors and systems for world wide export.
      All the UK has done has been talking for so many years, no energy policy during labour while we had gas and oil to make taxes from.
      The switch to support solar PV only, destroyed my UK businesses after 10 years of investment into solar thermal hot water and support heating, which is why I decided to spend the rest of my time in China
      Switching people to heat pumps and electricty will never gurantee them lighting, heating and hot water, which is why I have designed a simple kit to provide that gurantee to those who keep the gas boiler, but invest the same money in solar thermal heat combined with an an air source heat pump, not just change one technology for another.
      My growing direct sales to business and home owners are the latest in LED lighting, which should have been part of the FIT scheme, not just for pension funds and banks to make money from as I can prove today, they are still doing
      Regards
      Eric

  7. Darran Haigh says:

    Why not convert all cars to run on the gas you are getting out of the ground….get british gas to fit a car fuel point on the front of the house…then there will be no need for petrol stations ? only gas stations. British gas already supply this to every home in britain

  8. Paddy Macdonald says:

    Hi Jonathan, since the “one almighty elephant in the room” is climate change I am surprised that zero-carbon nuclear power doesn’t even merit a mention. Is that a myopic view on your part?

    I would also appreciate some references as to how the UK could get, never mind the cost all its energy through “clean energy technology” such as wind, tidal and solar, the “only energy option we have”.

    • Jonathan Hood says:

      Hi Paddy

      Thanks for this response. I didn’t deliberately exclude nuclear, I just didn’t use it as an example because this is not an area I work in. The International Energy Agency’s 450 Scenario does include nuclear as a greenhouse gas abatement option.

      As regards clean energy technology in the UK, I found Professor David MacKay’s book “Sustainable Energy without the hot air” very informative. It’s available online, free, at http://www.withouthotair.com.

      Best wishes,

      J

    • Eric Hawkins says:

      Paddy the reason there is no mention on Nuclear is becouse the Utility companies have yet to agree a CAP on the waste, which the Government is still in talks about, as we love talks, while nothing is being done about our energy future
      prepare for power cuts in the next 5 years
      I live and work in China, where real policy is happening

      • Paddy Macdonald says:

        Hi Erik.

        I would appreciate further comments on China where you say “real policy is happenning”. My understanding is China is increasing the use of coal and will soon account for half the coal burned on the planet. While the Chinese are certainly greatly expanding renewables (and also nuclear I think) these appear to be more than offset against additional reliance on fossil fuel.

        Regards,
        Paddy

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