Fools for Fossil Fuels
Crisis is a word that’s overused
But while fossil fuel supplies are running out, demand continues to rise.
Rich nations have built their economies on cheap, plentiful fossil fuels, and demand continues to grow. Emerging economic giants like China, India and Brazil need energy to fuel their own development.
On top of this, the world’s population is projected to increase to over nine billion over the next 40 years.
Yet according to the International Energy Agency, production from known oil and gas reserves will fall by around 40 to 60% by 2030.
Fossil fuels present a more immediate threat
When we burn them, the carbon they contain is released into the atmosphere. Increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere trap more of the sun’s heat, adding to the “greenhouse effect” that causes climate change.
And we’re now emitting carbon dioxide at an ever-increasing rate – 80% of the carbon dioxide emissions that heat up our planet come from burning fossil fuels.
Yet instead of reversing this trend, energy companies are increasingly turning to unconventional sources of oil and gas – such as oil sands and methane hydrates, which emit even higher levels of greenhouse gases.
On top of this, many remaining fossil fuel reserves are located in pristine places such as tropical rainforests and the Arctic.
Given all this, you might expect governments to be doing everything in their power to move away from fossil fuels towards renewable alternatives. In fact, the opposite is true.
- Globally, governments pay more than US$500 billion a year to subsidize fossil fuel production and consumption
- About 2/3 of that is spent in the developing world.
- Redirecting these subsidies into energy efficiency and renewable energy would do far more to lift people out of poverty, while reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
If everyone in the world consumed at the same rate as the average US resident, conventional oil reserves would be depleted in just 9 years
Fossil fuel facts
- The world’s 7 leading economies (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States) plus Russia, also known as the G8 – pumped out 40% of world carbon dioxide emissions in 2006.
- Coal is the world’s most widely available fossil fuel, but also one of the most damaging. Burning coal generates 70% more carbon dioxide than natural gas for every unit of energy produced.
- Per person, emissions of carbon dioxide from fossil fuels in the US are more than 4x the world average.
Arctic at risk of environmental disaster from oil drilling
The accident killed 11 people and devastated marine wildlife. It put more than 400 species at risk, including endangered fish and sea turtles, causing long-term damage to their habitats. It also hit the region’s fishing and tourism industries hard. It showed us just how devastating and dangerous deepwater drilling can be.
There have been scores of other oil spills and disasters since the 60s – from a well blow-out in the North Sea in 1977 to a ruptured pipeline off Rio de Janeiro in 2000.
Each had massive environmental and financial consequences.
A similar spill in a more remote or hostile environment could be even more disastrous. Yet some energy companies are willing to take the risk. Desperate to pursue the last drops of oil our planet has left, they are pushing for deepwater drilling in the Arctic region.
The Arctic plays an essential role in regulating our climate around the globe – like a giant reflective shield, it limits the amount of sun and heat the Earth absorbs. It is home to some of the world’s most distinctive mammals, such as walruses, whales and the iconic polar bear.
A vast area of fjords and tundra, jagged peaks and frozen seas, glaciers and icebergs, and ice and snow, the Arctic is one of the planet's last pristine regions. But for how much longer? It holds the world’s largest remaining untapped gas reserves and some of the largest undeveloped oil reserves. Much of this is offshore and difficult to access.
Containing and clearing up an oil spill in the Arctic would be no easy feat.
The harsh weather – high winds and freezing temperatures – make it even harder to respond to oil spills. It could take as long as 6 months to get to oil that was trapped under ice. If you waited for the ice to melt, the oil would have time to spread far and wide.Ecosystems there are particularly fragile. Low temperatures and limited sunlight mean it can take decades for them to recover from any disruption.
The human population is vulnerable too. Many communities in the region depend entirely on the sea for subsistence hunting and fishing. An oil spill would be devastating to their culture.
Nuclear: part of the solution or part of the problem?
The United States has more than 50,000 tons of nuclear waste, Germany around 12,000. This highly radioactive material has yet to be disposed of securely and, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency, it’ll be 10,000 years before its threat to public health is substantially reduced.
And nuclear is no ‘easy’ technology. It requires highly trained staff, it’s expensive, and existing power stations are inefficient.
Setting up new power stations also require massive investments, and projects can end up costing a lot more than originally predicted.
And while generating electricity may not produce carbon emissions, the whole process – from mining uranium to storing radioactive waste – uses huge amounts of fossil fuels.
So, is a new generation of nuclear power stations a sensible investment?
We could achieve far more by spending the money on energy efficiency and renewable power. This is particularly true in the developing world – nuclear energy will never be a solution for the 1.4 billion people currently denied electricity.
We need to end this distraction and get on with cutting our energy waste and building up the clean sources of sustainable energy.