Fossil fuels are saving the world

Don’t listen to the Green Taliban…fossil fuels have actually saved the world.

Matt Ridley explains in the Wall Street Journal:

The environmental movement has advanced three arguments in recent years for giving up fossil fuels: (1) that we will soon run out of them anyway; (2) that alternative sources of energy will price them out of the marketplace; and (3) that we cannot afford the climate consequences of burning them.

These days, not one of the three arguments is looking very healthy. In fact, a more realistic assessment of our energy and environmental situation suggests that, for decades to come, we will continue to rely overwhelmingly on the fossil fuels that have contributed so dramatically to the world?s prosperity and progress.

In 2013, about 87% of the energy that the world consumed came from fossil fuels, a figure that?remarkably?was unchanged from 10 years before. This roughly divides into three categories of fuel and three categories of use: oil used mainly for transport, gas used mainly for heating, and coal used mainly for electricity.

Over this period, the overall volume of fossil-fuel consumption has increased dramatically, but with an encouraging environmental trend: a diminishing amount of carbon-dioxide emissions per unit of energy produced. The biggest contribution to decarbonizing the energy system has been the switch from high-carbon coal to lower-carbon gas in electricity generation.

On a global level, renewable energy sources such as wind and solar have contributed hardly at all to the drop in carbon emissions, and their modest growth has merely made up for a decline in the fortunes of zero-carbon nuclear energy. (The reader should know that I have an indirect interest in coal through the ownership of land in Northern England on which it is mined, but I nonetheless applaud the displacement of coal by gas in recent years.)

The argument that fossil fuels will soon run out is dead, at least for a while. The collapse of the price of oil over the past six months is the result of abundance: an inevitable consequence of the high oil prices of recent years, which stimulated innovation in hydraulic fracturing, horizontal drilling, seismology and information technology.

Almost every prediction of the green movement has been wrong. They are more wrong than right.

So those who predict the imminent exhaustion of fossil fuels are merely repeating the mistakes of the U.S. presidential commission that opined in 1922 that ?already the output of gas has begun to wane. Production of oil cannot long maintain its present rate.? Or President Jimmy Carter when he announced on television in 1977 that ?we could use up all the proven reserves of oil in the entire world by the end of the next decade.?

That fossil fuels are finite is a red herring. The Atlantic Ocean is finite, but that does not mean that you risk bumping into France if you row out of a harbor in Maine. The buffalo of the American West were infinite, in the sense that they could breed, yet they came close to extinction. It is an ironic truth that no nonrenewable resource has ever run dry, while renewable resources?whales, cod, forests, passenger pigeons?have frequently done so.

Heh.

As for renewable energy, hydroelectric is the biggest and cheapest supplier, but it has the least capacity for expansion. Technologies that tap the energy of waves and tides remain unaffordable and impractical, and most experts think that this won?t change in a hurry. Geothermal is a minor player for now. And bioenergy?that is, wood, ethanol made from corn or sugar cane, or diesel made from palm oil?is proving an ecological disaster: It encourages deforestation and food-price hikes that cause devastation among the world?s poor, and per unit of energy produced, it creates even more carbon dioxide than coal.

Wind power, for all the public money spent on its expansion, has inched up to?wait for it?1% of world energy consumption in 2013. Solar, for all the hype, has not even managed that: If we round to the nearest whole number, it accounts for 0% of world energy consumption.

Both wind and solar are entirely reliant on subsidies for such economic viability as they have. World-wide, the subsidies given to renewable energy currently amount to roughly $10 per gigajoule: These sums are paid by consumers to producers, so they tend to go from the poor to the rich, often to landowners (I am a landowner and can testify that I receive and refuse many offers of risk-free wind and solar subsidies).

If something needs a subsidy it isn’t a real business or product. What one government gives away in subsidies another can take away.

Notice, too, the ways in which fossil fuels have contributed to preserving the planet. As the American author and fossil-fuels advocate Alex Epstein points out in a bravely unfashionable book, ?The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels,? the use of coal halted and then reversed the deforestation of Europe and North America. The turn to oil halted the slaughter of the world?s whales and seals for their blubber. Fertilizer manufactured with gas halved the amount of land needed to produce a given amount of food, thus feeding a growing population while sparing land for wild nature.

To throw away these immense economic, environmental and moral benefits, you would have to have a very good reason. The one most often invoked today is that we are wrecking the planet?s climate. But are we?

No we are not.

We should encourage the switch from coal to gas in the generation of electricity, provide incentives for energy efficiency, get nuclear power back on track and keep developing solar power and electricity storage. We should also invest in research on ways to absorb carbon dioxide from the air, by fertilizing the ocean or fixing it through carbon capture and storage. Those measures all make sense. And there is every reason to promote open-ended research to find some unexpected new energy technology.

The one thing that will not work is the one thing that the environmental movement insists upon: subsidizing wealthy crony capitalists to build low-density, low-output, capital-intensive, land-hungry renewable energy schemes, while telling the poor to give up the dream of getting richer through fossil fuels.

A very good essay, one which no one on the left will read.

 

– Wall Street Journal

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