The industrial burning of fossil fuels has released CO2 that is purported to be responsible for .7 degrees of planetary warming over the last century, and climate models predict it could be responsible for up to another 2 – 6 degrees over the next 100 years. Despite the fact that very few of the climate change predictions made since the late nineteen-eighties have come true (think empty dams, no more snow in the UK and an ice-free arctic) if a warmer earth is going to be a problem, what can we do about it?
Mainstream thinking tells that leaving fossil fuels in the ground is the answer. According to the IPCC we must act now to reduce emissions substantially in order to reduce climate risks and increase our chances of adapting to a warmer world. Across the globe, various carbon pricing schemes, taxes and renewable energy subsidies have been put in place in order to roll back the clock on global carbon dioxide emissions. In Australia, we have the Emissions Reduction Fund to which the government have allocated $2.55 billion in order to help achieve Australia’s 2020 emissions reduction target of five per cent below 2000 levels by 2020. Then there is the $1 billion dollars pledged after the Paris Climate Summit last year, $200 million pledged over 4 years for the Global Climate Fund, and also $200 million dollars pledged to Mission Innovation, a multi-country group whose mission is to accelerate global clean energy innovation. It has been estimated that the overall gross cost of decarbonising Australia’s energy production over the next 20 years will be $60 billion.
But what will we get for those dollars and how much will it affect global temperature? With perhaps the exception of Mission Innovation, which focuses on more on ‘clean’ energy innovation and not carbon reduction, the dollars spent largely serve to increase energy poverty and slow economic growth, by making energy production more expensive. Together with the Renewable Energy Targets we are also heading towards a 23.5 per cent reliance on unreliable renewable energy sources by 2020, and nobody can say with any accuracy exactly how many degrees of future warming these measures will mitigate. Seeing as Australia emits just 1 per cent of the total global carbon dioxide emissions per year, and we are striving to reduce this to 5 per cent less than our 2000 emission levels, we can assume it’s not very much. Meanwhile, worldwide there are 350 gigawatts of coal projects currently under construction, and 932 gigawatts of pre-construction coal proposals in the pipeline. Compare that to Australia’s annual coal production capacity of 29 GWe in 2014, it becomes apparent that our efforts are not only futile but seriously undermined.
Consider also that global population will continue to rise until at least mid-century; meaning that in order for global carbon dioxide emissions to even remain stagnant, per capita emissions must continually fall proportionately to population growth. We are told that if fossil fuel use and carbon dioxide emissions stabilise at today’s levels, the climate will still warm by .6 degrees over the next 100 years. To achieve this continual reduction in per capita emissions, it means no new cheap energy for the developing world, and somebody would have to stop India, Indonesia and China from building new coal powered plants. A realist knows that this will never happen; it is more likely that globally we will continue on a ‘business as usual’ course. No number of carbon reduction schemes in the West will have any ability to stop this growth and they certainly won’t have any effect on the temperature.
But in rushing to decarbonise, are we on the right track? Alex Epstein, author of The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels outlines in his book just how much benefit fossil fuel use has been to humanity. By every measure, human well-being is better than has ever been. We have cleaner air to breathe free from wood smoke, clean water, sanitation, sturdy homes, modern medicine and modern farming methods all due to the cheap reliable energy that fossil fuels provide. To him, the planet is here for us to modify and improve and in doing so we improve our lives. He even argues that fossil fuels improve the environment, evidenced by the fact that richer, industrialised nations have more measures in place to protect the environment than poorer, non-industrialised nations. By continuing to access cheap and plentiful energy through the burning of fossil fuels we are further equipping ourselves to withstand extreme weather events, and overcome and adapt to any changes that warmer planet may bring. Mortality rates due to extreme weather events have actually declined by 95 per cent since 1900, due, one can assume, to the protection modern fossil fuel powered technology affords, by way of satellite monitoring and more powerful modes of disseminating information.
Those who hark back to pre-industrialised societies as some sort of utopian existence where man is at one with nature, neglect to realise that without modern civilisation we would be faced with disease, hunger and very short and miserable lives. Those who demonise the ‘dirty fossil fuel industry’ naively forget just how much our modern lifestyles rely on it in order to function. They also forget that ‘clean’ energy sources have their own negative environmental impacts and that fossil fuels and rare earths are required in order to produce ‘climate friendly’ solar panels and wind turbines.
What is comes down to is risk benefit analysis. No power source currently available is free from negative impacts. Fossil fuels can be polluting, but newer technologies are making it less so. Eventually, fossil fuels are going to run out (but much later than the ‘peak oil’ scare had us believe) and at that point motivation to invest in alternatives will be at its greatest. Once alternative energy sources become viable under their own steam, demand for fossil fuels will decline. Our future lies in innovation, human ingenuity and an energy market free from government subsidies and incentives that will provide us with the platform to develop new energy technology that works. It helps to remember that we don’t actually know with any certainty what the future climate will be; we need to be able to adapt to any future climate problems we may face including rapid warming or indeed global cooling.
Energy policies that attempt to push a move away from fossil fuel consumption before we are really ready to have everything to do with ideology and nothing to do with common sense. The billions of taxpayer dollars Australia is spending in order to ‘do something’ about the climate is money down the drain and an example of government waste. It is money that could be better spent on any number of programs that would actually have a beneficial effect on our environment, or on our standard of living. Our climate dollars will have next to no impact on the climate, and are instead just very expensive tokenism.
Nicola Wright is a writer for LibertyWorks