Thursday, August 08, 2013

Fossil Fuels and Our Civilization

I don't want to be tarred and feathered but we have to state some truths out in the open...

Our current civilization was build on top of fossil fuels. Without them we would probably now be living very similar lives to the ones in which our ancestors struggled to survive in 1850.
Almost certainly, today we wouldn't have massive access to cars and air travel (if at all). The world wouldn't be nearly as globalized and thus things would be much more expensive and the choices likewise limited.
Electricity would almost certainly still be a lab curiosity, and thus we wouldn't enjoy air conditioning, elevators, powerful illumination, etc. 
The rest of the technological advances would probably had been delayed for centuries and thus today we would not have computers, the Internet, cell phones, TV, radio, Twitter, you name it.

Below, we can see the global energy use since 1850.

Without fossil fuels we would almost certainly had destroyed our forests just to use their wood as fuel and whales would have been eradicated from the planet. Food production (without mechanization, some fertilizers, etc.) would also be much lower. 

So the way to go back to a world with as low emissions as we had in 1850 is to essentially renounce to all the convienences of our modern civilization and starve six billion persons.

This won't happen. Period. Consequently, our fossil fuel use in the next few decades will, far from decreasing, increase at a consistent pace. In the short / medium term, no disruption of the climate could be worse for humanity than returning to an energy poor society.

Sure, the day of reckoning will come but when people are given the choice between killing their children (through energy scarcity) or killing their eventual great-grandchildren (through an overheated planet) most will certainly select the latter. 

Can we replace fossil fuels with low carbon energies? In the short term the answer is no and this is due to the MAGNITUDE of the energy we have to replace. Even with aggressive growth, the EIA estimates that solar PV will be less than 1% of our global total primary energy supply by 2040; wind could be close to 3%. However, the absolute growth in fossil fuels use during this same period would completely overshadow the increases in low carbon energy.

In the long term (50 to 100 years) we could replace fossil fuels with a bit of hydro, a little sun & wind and lots of nuclear (either fission alone or combined with fusion).

So bar a very disruptive black swan, the RESPONSIBLE thing to do is to plan for a "business as usual" consumption of fossil fuels for the next few decades. 

Bringing our atmosphere back to 350 ppm of CO2 this century is completely unrealistic. Our plans should probably consider concentrations of 600 ppm by the year 2100. 

Now, after planning for the worst it doesn't mean we should sit down with our arms crossed, no. We should act, and our top three priorities should probably be:

1. Reduce our per capita energy consumption.
2. Stop population growth.
3. Start moving as fast as feasible to lower carbon sources.

Jack Welch said that effective management consists of looking reality in the eye and acting accordingly.

Humanity cannot afford more wishful thinking, we should follow Jack's advice.

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At 10:56 PM, Blogger Josué Treviño said...

Great comment!! Many important ideas with just a few words.

At 10:28 PM, Blogger Nader Belal said...

I think that scarcity of petroleum in the near future (either by wells going dry, or the demand increase ),will lead to the rise of its price to a level, that we will end living like how the society had lived then.


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