Forget climate change: a fossil fuel future is a fantasy

Jon Jenkins in his article “The warmaholics’ fantasy” (The Australian, January 6, 2009) ends by asking this: “The real question is in acknowledging the end of fossil fuels within the next 200 years or so: how do we spend our research time and dollars?”

Unfortunately, Jenkins has made the common error of not factoring in growth in demand. The latest annual figures available from BP’s authoritative Statistical Review of World Energy 2008 (PDF 6.32MB) show that energy use grew 2.4 per cent from 2006 to 2007. If we use this number as escalation against 200 years at current usage, we actually only have 75 years of fossil fuels left. Allow a more aggressive growth rate of 5 per cent to factor in industrialisation of currently less developed countries, and fossil fuels will be gone in 50 years.

I’ve graphed the trend (see graph below) with 200 years’ worth of fossil fuel as the starting point to make it easy to see how the various growth rates pan out. As you can see, constant use takes us to zero after 200 years (off the scale of the graph). As you should be able to see from the graph, when constant demand would have used less than 40 per cent of all carbon fuels, 2.4 per cent growth will have used them all up. Five per cent growth would hit zero when only about 25 per cent of reserves would have been consumed at fixed demand.

While it’s conceivable that 200 years is an under-estimate, any excess on that amount would include fuels from increasingly inaccessible and environmentally fragile sources. In fact, even to reach that level would require exploiting resources like tar sands and oil shale that are not only environmentally problematic but also expensive to process. What’s more, coal and oil are complex mixes of chemicals that have many uses; it’s silly to burn valuable, irreplaceable chemicals.

Long before we reach an era of real shortage, markets will be subject to massive swings as speculators ride fears of shortage - as we saw recently with oil prices. As demand from developing countries increases, we can expect prices to escalate for the simple reason that supply is unlikely to keep up with demand. We’ve already mined out much of the coal that’s really easy to dig up (Britain had massive reserves in the 19th century), and oil is increasingly being sought in expensive locations like the deep sea and in the Arctic.


Even without disputing Jenkins on climate change (I can’t see how he advances the debate with ad hominem attacks - and am pleased to see he has subsequently apologised for this in a letter in The Australian), there is a clear case for exploring alternative energy now, and doing so aggressively.

It’s clear that we will need to find alternatives to fossil fuels and sooner than most think.

Will this necessarily result in massive pain? Luckily, Cambridge physics professor David MacKay has already provided a good start at understanding the problem in a new book, Sustainable Energy - without the hot air (not yet published in Australia; you can download a free copy from his web site). To cut to the chase, he calculates that Britain will battle to achieve a sustainable-energy economy because it has too high a population density and not enough sun. Much of Europe likewise will have to look to sunny low-population countries like Libya to import solar electricity. Australia gets little coverage in the book since the focus is on solutions for the UK.

MacKay has reduced his calculations to simple examples that can easily be reworked for other parts of the world, or different solution mixes. Comparing us with the UK and its need to import solar electricity from Libya for example illustrates that we really do not have much of a problem here. Our population density is less than Libya’s, and we have plenty of sunshine.

What of the problems often raised about intermittency of wind and solar power? There are many creative solutions out there of which MacKay provides a good sampling. He reminds us that electricity providers have to be geared to handle massive changes in demand; much of the same techniques can be used to manage changes in supply. For example, electric cars, while charging overnight, could be equipped with smart meters that draw power when it’s cheap, and put some back when it’s expensive. Heavy users whose usage is not time-dependent could be scheduled to draw power when it’s plentiful. And of course existing techniques for load management such as pumped storage (sending water uphill when electricity is plentiful; using a downhill flow later to drive a generator) can be scaled up.

There’s too much detail in the book to cover in a short article like this. I strongly recommend that anyone interested in energy alternatives read it. Since he has neatly compartmentalised his solutions, it is relatively easy if you disagree with one to pull it out and replace it by another option. I’ve seen many attempts at covering small parts of the problem. Only a comprehensive approach such as this is really any good. Not only that, MacKay has a fine sense of humour.

I propose we stop worrying about who is right and wrong in the climate change debate, and move as fast as we can to sustainable energy. To do so requires some hard political will, not wishy-washy strategies like charging for pollution permits then giving most of the money back to the big polluters.

If we get this right, we will be insulated from damaging swings in energy commodity prices. Should the worst predictions of climate change turn out to be true, we will be well on the way towards a clean energy economy. If not, we will be a bit ahead of where we need to be when fossil fuels start to run out and become really expensive. All three ways, we win.

Philip Machanick is a researcher in the field of bioinformatics, and has worked at the University of Queensland, University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa, and Stanford University in the USA. He has published a book, No Tomorrow, a novel with a climate change theme, and campaigns for sustainable living and rights-based government. He holds a PhD in Computer Science, and has published more than 50 academic papers. He blogs at Opinionations, where this article was first published.

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