Finally, after years of effort by dedicated scientists and activists like Al Gore, the issue of global warming has begun to receive the international attention it desperately needs. The publication on February 2 of the most recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), providing the most persuasive evidence to date of human responsibility for rising world temperatures, generated banner headlines around the world. But while there is a growing consensus on humanity’s responsibility for global warming, policymakers have yet to come to terms with its principal cause: our unrelenting consumption of fossil fuels.
When talk of global warming is introduced into the public discourse, as in Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth,” it is generally characterized as an environmental problem, akin to water pollution, air pollution, pesticide abuse, and so on. This implies that it can be addressed – like those other problems – through a concerted effort to “clean up” our resource-utilization behavior, by substituting “green” products for ordinary ones, by restricting the release of toxic substances, and so on.
But global warming is not an “environmental” problem in the same sense as these others – it is an energy problem, first and foremost. Almost 90% of the world’s energy is supplied through the combustion of fossil fuels, and every time we burn these fuels to make energy we release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere; carbon dioxide, in turn, is the principal component of the “greenhouse gases” (GHGs) that are responsible for warming the planet. Energy use and climate change are two sides of the same coin.
Fossil Fuel Dependency
Consider the situation in the United States. According to the Department of Energy (DoE), carbon dioxide emissions constitute 84% of this nation’s greenhouse gas emissions. Of all U.S. carbon dioxide emissions, most – 98% – are emitted as a result of the combustion of fossil fuels, which currently provide approximately 86% of America’s total energy supply. This means that energy use and carbon dioxide emissions are highly correlated: the more energy we consume, the more CO2 we release into the atmosphere, and the more we contribute to the buildup of GHGs.
Because Americans show no inclination to reduce their consumption of fossil fuels – but rather are using more and more of them all the time – one can foresee no future reduction in U.S. emissions of GHGs. According to the DoE, the United States is projected to consume 35% more oil, coal, and gas combined in 2030 than in 2004; not surprisingly, the nation’s emissions of carbon dioxide are expected to rise by approximately the same percentage over this period. If these projections prove accurate, total U.S. carbon dioxide emissions in 2030 will reach a staggering 8.1 billion metric tons, of which 42% will be generated through the consumption of oil (most of it in automobiles, vans, trucks, and buses), 40% by the burning of coal (principally to produce electricity), and the remainder by the combustion of natural gas (mainly for home heating and electricity generation). No other activity in the United States will come even close in terms of generating GHG emissions.
What is true of the United States is also true of other industrialized and industrializing nations, including China and India. Although a few may rely on nuclear power or energy renewables to a greater extent than the United States, all continue to consume fossil fuels and to emit large quantities of carbon dioxide, and so all are contributing to the acceleration of global climate change. According to the DoE, global emissions of carbon dioxide are projected to increase by a frightening 75% between 2003 and 2030, from 25.0 to 43.7 billion metric tons. People may talk about slowing the rate of climate change, but if these figures prove accurate, the climate will be much hotter in coming decades and this will produce the most damaging effects predicted by the IPCC.
What this tells us is that the global warming problem cannot be separated from the energy problem. If the human community continues to consume more fossil fuels to generate more energy, it inevitably will increase the emission of carbon dioxide and so hasten the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, thus causing irreversible climate change. Whatever we do on the margins to ameliorate this process – such as planting trees to absorb some of the carbon emissions or slowing the rate of deforestation – will have only negligible effect so long as the central problem of fossil-fuel consumption is left unchecked.
State of Denial
Many political and business leaders wish to deny this fundamental reality. They may claim to accept the conclusions of the IPCC report. They will admit that vigorous action is needed to stem the buildup of greenhouse gases. But they will nevertheless seek to shield energy policy from fundamental change.
Typical of this approach is a talk given by Rex W. Tillerson, the CEO of Exxon Mobil, at a conference organized by Cambridge Energy Research Associates on February 13. As head of the world’s largest publicly traded energy firm, Tillerson receives special attention when he talks. That his predecessor Lee Raymond often disparaged the science of global warming lent his comments particular significance. Yes, Tillerson admitted, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels were increasing, and this contributed to the planet’s gradual warming. But then, in language characteristic of the industry, he added, “The scale advantages of oil and natural gas across a broad array applications provide economic value unmatched by any alternative.” It would therefore be a terrible mistake, he added, to rush into the development of energy alternatives when the consequences of global warming are still not fully understood.
The logic of this mode of thinking is inescapable. The continued production of fossil fuels to sustain our existing economic system is too important to allow the health of the planet to stand in its way. Buy into this mode of thought, and you can say goodbye to any hope of slowing – let alone reversing – the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
What to Do
If, however, we seek to protect the climate while there is still time to do so, we must embrace a fundamental transformation in our energy behavior: nothing else will make a significant difference. In practice, this devolves into two fundamental postulates. We must substantially reduce our consumption of fossil fuels, and we must find ways to capture and bury the carbon by-products of the fossil fuels we do consume.
Various strategies have been proposed to achieve these objectives. Those that offer significant promise should be utilized to the maximum extent possible. This is not the place to evaluate these strategies in detail, except to make a few broad comments.
First, as noted, since 42% of American carbon dioxide emissions (the largest share) are produced through the combustion of petroleum, anything that reduces oil consumption – higher fuel-efficiency standards for motor vehicles, bigger incentives for hybrids, greater use of ethanol, improved public transportation, car-pooling, and so – should be made a major priority.
Second, because the combustion of coal in electrical power plants is our next biggest source of CO2, improving the efficiency of these plants and filtering out the harmful emissions has to be another top priority.
Finally, we should accelerate research into promising new techniques for the capture and “sequestration” of carbon during the combustion of fossil fuels in electricity generation. Some of these plans call for burying excess carbon in hollowed-out coalmines and oil wells – a very practical use for these abandoned relics, but only if it can be demonstrated that none of the carbon will leak back into the atmosphere, adding to the buildup of GHGs.
Global warming is an energy problem, and we cannot have both an increase in conventional fossil fuel use and a habitable planet. It’s one or the other. We must devise a future energy path that will meet our basic (not profligate) energy needs and also rescue the climate while there’s still time. The technology to do so is potentially available to us, but only if we make the decision to develop it swiftly and on a very large scale.