Willis Eschenbach has a new post on Watts Up With That (WUWT) called Double the burn – Scotty. In this post he calculates how much we would need to increase our use of fossil fuels in order for the per capita energy use to be some reasonable minimum for all countries (which he sets as being the same as that of Spain or Italy). He determines that this would require increasing our fossil fuel use by 80%. He then calculates that we have at least 46 years, and probably more, of fossil fuels left at this rate and that we should just go ahead and do this, as this is the way to bring people out of poverty.
I’ve probably written about this type of reasoning before, but I always find it quite amazing. Let me acknowledge some things. It seems reasonable to argue that providing energy for developing economies will create jobs and alleviate poverty. I have no real issue with that argument. It’s also clear that fossil fuels have been a fantastic source of energy for the last 150 years or so. My issue is with the assumption that continuing to use fossil fuels is the only way to alleviate poverty in the developing world. Especially as this isn’t actually an argument for doing anything to help the developing world. The basis of this argument is that anything else will be more expensive and hence will disadvantage the developing world.
Let’s, however, get one thing out of the way right now though. Global warming is real and if we continue to add CO2 to the atmosphere at the rate (or faster than) we are now, we will be locking in at least 2 degrees of warming by the middle of the 21st century, and sea levels will almost certainly have risen by 0.5m by 2100. So, in my opinion, continuing to use fossil fuels as we are today is inadvisable (to put it mildly) and suggesting that we should use more is irresponsible. With some exceptions, people should be free to write whatever they like on whatever subject they like. However, you are also responsible for what you write. Although I don’t expect Willis Eschenbach to be held accountable when it becomes obvious that the risks associated with continued fossil fuel use are real; I do expect him to be associated with those who are held responsible (to be fair my main issue is with policy makers and the media who listen to this nonsense, rather than with the people who write it).
What I find frustrating about Willis’s basic idea is that fossil fuels aren’t free. We’ve been using then as our main energy source for 150 years and we still have billions living in poverty. If it’s the only way, why is it taking so long? It’s because it costs money to extract the oil, gas and coal. It costs money to build and operate power plants. It costs money to develop and maintain the associated infrastructure. It’s also going to get more expensive as the fossil fuels become more and more difficult to extract. If the developing world has been unable to take as much advantage of fossil fuels as the developed world in the past, it’s hard to see how they’re going to suddenly be able to take more advantage in the future.
At some basic level, all forms of energy are free. Wind, solar, tidal, wave, nuclear, geothermal. The expensive part is working out how to convert it from it’s initial form into usable energy. If the past is anything to go by (and I would imagine it is) the newer forms of energy (wind, solar, tidal, etc.) are likely to become cheaper while the older forms (fossil fuels) become more expensive. If Willis and his gang were genuinely concerned about those living in povert they would be promoting more alternative energy sources both because of the risks of climate change and because the more we invest in developing these new technologies, the cheaper they will become.
I realise that my post here is a bit simplistic and there are clearly many complications associated with how we provide energy in the future. It’s also not my area of expertise in any way, shape or form. However, suggesting that the only truly viable energy source for the future is fossil fuels is, in my opinion, even more simplistic.