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An Inescapable Fossil Fuel World

Jan. 10th, 2007
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RALEIGH – We live and work today in an economy driven by fossil fuels. This is unlikely to change anytime soon, for basic reasons of engineering and economics, despite widespread concerns about human-induced global warming. The one energy source that could shoulder a significantly larger share of the load, nuclear, is implacably opposed by many of the same folks warning us about catastrophic climate change.

These are among the lessons I gleaned from recent work by my friend Ed Erickson, professor emeritus in the Department of Economics at North Carolina State University. In a book chapter he’s just completed, and during subsequent conversation, he pointed out that the clash between the economics of energy and the politics of environmental protection will create one of the most challenging problems of the coming decades. “Reducing cardon dioxide emissions significantly will require dramatic changes in the way we organize our activities and live our lives,” Erickson wrote. These changes will be expensive, and strongly resisted. Thus, policymakers should have a high level of certainty about the potential costs and benefits before mandating them.

I hadn’t seen the numbers on energy sources and consumption presented in such stark terms, so I asked Dr. Erickson if I could recycle them here (ha).

In 1980, fossil fuels made up about 91 percent of total world energy consumption. Petroleum led the pack with 47 percent, following by coal at 25 percent and natural gas at 19 percent. By 2004, the fossil-fuel share had decreased a bit, to 87 percent, with petroleum falling quite a bit (to 39 percent), coal edging up slightly, and natural gas increasing to 23 percent.

Three-quarters of the increase in non-fossil fuel can be attribute to growth in nuclear-power consumption, largely outside of the U.S. Still, nuclear energy made up only 6 percent of consumption in 2004, up from 3 percent in 1980. Hydroelectric stayed pretty much level at around 6 percent. Other “renewables” – solar, wind, geothermal, etc. – grew from a negligible .2 percent in 1980 to a minuscule 1 percent in 2004.

There is an obvious lack of realism in energy debates. Many of those who say that America and the rest of the world need to start moving away from fossil-fuel dependency – and I don’t deny that there are potential benefits from such a move, even if human-induced global warming proves not to be as grave a threat as they believe – also manage to find reasons to oppose substitutes. They fret about nuclear waste and the risk of meltdowns. They complain that dams and windmills threaten native species and vistas. But solar panels won’t get us very far. And growing crops to convert to gasoline additives would itself be controversial at the scale required – as Erickson writes, if the current U.S. corn crop was entirely converted into ethanol, that would replace only 20 percent of current gas use.

If the solution isn’t on the production side, then activists are left with consumption-side tools, meaning conservation. The problem here is that households are unlikely to conserve energy when it is inexpensive. Jawboning and PSAs have proven insufficient. Conservation will be the natural result of higher energy prices, but few activists are brave enough to endorse the massive increases in price that would be required to change household consumption of energy as much as they dream about.

Perhaps someone will invent some new technology to transform the debate. There are certainly lots of companies, research teams, and inventors working furiously on it – which is (sorry to break it to you economic populists out there) the kind of beneficial human effort that prospective profits motivate. For the foreseeable future, however, fossil fuels will continue to dominate energy consumption. Don’t blame me – I’m just passing along the information.

Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.