Sunday, January 30, 2022

Fossil fuels vs climate action: A not-so-hidden dilemma

When crossing the ocean by sea or by air, small differences in the direction you take will result in huge differences in your ultimate destination. Back in the middle of the last century, human society might have made relatively minor adjustments in its trajectory, say, in the growth of consumption of resources including energy, even perhaps deciding that these must level off at some point in the future.

We humans made no such adjustments and so we now find ourselves faced with only draconian choices. But we do not seem to understand that we've arrived at a destination far from the one we imagined in 1950. An example is the celebration in the environmental community of a recent federal court decision to invalidate oil and gas leases offered by the U.S. government on 80 million acres of the Gulf of Mexico. (It turns out that oil and gas companies only bid on 1.7 million of those acres.)

The ostensible reason for invalidating the leases was that the government did not adequately consider the effect of the leases on climate change. The government could do another evaluation and try selling the leases again. But environmental organizations would likely challenge the leases in court again.

While the effects of climate change are already severe and likely to become even more so, global human society is utterly dependent on uninterrupted flows of fossil fuels to function. And, while climate change activists continue to champion a so-called energy transition to green energy sources such as solar and wind, what they might not understand is that so far, these alternatives have been used to augment human energy consumption. They have not displaced fossil fuels at all. Nor are they likely to in any time frame that matters.

To understand why this is so, we need the help of two concepts: power density and the rate-of-conversion problem. Here's what I wrote about power density more than a decade ago:

Power densities are a measure of the land required for both energy sources and energy users. The current infrastructure matches the small footprint of energy sources against the large footprint of energy users. With the drive toward renewable energy sources, this relationship is about to be reversed with consequences few people understand.

I concluded the following:

[I]t is glaringly obvious that the energy sources we rely on now are one to two orders of magnitude smaller by land area per unit of energy produced than the industries and buildings they service are per unit of energy consumed. That means it takes a relatively small land area to service the enormous area devoted to commercial, residential and industrial buildings. Just the opposite will become the case using renewable energy sources. We will be obliged to devote vast tracts of space—far more vast than the buildings they serve—to support the energy use of our current infrastructure. This may not be impossible, but it will certainly be costly and socially disruptive.

The second issue, the rate-of-conversion problem, has become even more daunting since the time I first wrote about it in 2008. This concept refers to the rate at which we are converting to low-carbon and no-carbon energy sources versus the rate at which we need to make that conversion. In that piece I explained the "crucial issue at the heart of the rate-of-conversion problem" as follows:

When should we start making our conversion to an alternative energy economy? The answer is fairly straightforward. We should start while we still have ample and even growing supplies of fossil fuels. This is especially true of oil which is so critical to transportation and to the mining of the minerals needed for nuclear reactors and fuel and for the manufacture of wind turbines and solar panels.

The era of plentiful fossil fuels, however, may be drawing to a close sooner than many believe.

Back then oil was headed to its all-time high near $150 per barrel. Since then prices have fluctuated wildly between extremes. Today, however, oil prices are on the rise again. But something has happened which few people realize. World oil production—meaning crude including lease condensate which is the definition of oil—peaked in late 2018 and has never recovered. This has happened even as we are nowhere near displacing fossil fuels for our energy needs and the world's most important fossil fuel is now in decline.

What's more is that the environmental community is focused on preventing additional production of oil, natural gas and coal—which is, of course, imperative if we are going to reduce carbon emissions and thereby lessen and even halt the progress of climate change.

But lower production of fossil fuels may make it more difficult to fuel the factories and mines that are building the devices and structures we need to bring about a low-carbon future. There appear to be no good choices because we as a society have waited far too long to make the energy transition.

We could collectively go on a draconian energy diet to conserve fuel and reduce carbon emissions. But, that hardly seems politically and socially feasible. One of the chief reasons is that beyond the personal sacrifice, such a move would almost surely put the world economy into a long-lasting recession or depression. This is because energy is a central industry that supports a huge amount of economic activity.

But what if we devoted the energy saved to an emergency program to deploy low-carbon and no-carbon energy sources? That would put people to work and stimulate economic activity. We would, however, have to re-train tens, if not hundreds, of millions of people in very short order. We would be doing the equivalent of building a plane while flying it. Given the highly technical nature of the available alternatives, it is unlikely that this re-training would go quickly or smoothly.

Then there's the investment in plant and equipment which takes considerable time to build. And, there is the adjustment and expansion of the energy infrastructure used to bring us electricity and liquid fuels. It would have to be adapted for dependence on far more electricity and far less liquid fuel as, for instance, ground transportation becomes increasingly electrified—which, of course, requires the emergency production and deployment of electric vehicles as quickly as we can and the recharging stations to accommodate them. And so on, and so on....

The speed and scale at which we must act to be successful in both reducing carbon emissions and replacing the energy sources which produce them suggests that we are far past the time when we should have begun.

The idea that a smooth transition away from fossil fuels is already happening and can succeed without draconian emergency measures is a self-deception of the first order. While I understand the desire to stop further burning of fossil fuels, I also understand that we have almost certainly blown any chance to make a decline in fossil fuel use—either forced or voluntary—a smooth process that does not risk the unraveling of modern global society.

We have only difficult choices ahead. We must now think about how to reduce the impact of two converging trends, climate change and energy depletion. That will be a huge undertaking that no court decision blocking fossil fuel production will be able to lessen.

Kurt Cobb is a freelance writer and communications consultant who writes frequently about energy and environment. His work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Resilience, Common Dreams, Naked Capitalism, Le Monde Diplomatique,, OilVoice, TalkMarkets,, Business Insider and many other places. He is the author of an oil-themed novel entitled Prelude and has a widely followed blog called Resource Insights. He can be contacted at


Joe Clarkson said...

We have allowed ourselves (especially in the rich world) to get so far into overshoot that "the unraveling of modern global society" is certain. What is also certain is that when a population is in overshoot it will eventually be reduced to carrying capacity of its environment. And since carrying capacity will depend on the energy supply available (usually food), human population will be reduced to that which can survive without any of the technological benefits of modernity. Not only will modernity "unravel", a very high percentage of the human population will die prematurely.

Because of, and despite, that inevitability, we will therefore burn every last bit of fossil fuel we can get our fingers on. But if that burning goes on much longer, severe climate change will become increasingly certain, too. Our only chance for a habitable climate is a rapid decline in the use of fossil fuels. To prevent that, modernity must unravel for reasons not directly related to fossil fuel depletion. This means that if we don't get economic collapse soon, we will not only have a large percentage of people die, the survivors will have to make their way in a dramatically changed climate. Perhaps a new Covid varient with the transmissability of Omicron and the fatality rate of MERS will do the trick. Here's hoping.

Don19 said...

Let's hope - for future generations - that we crack Nuclear fusion very soon

ChemEng said...

We often hear the refrain, “We need to listen to the scientists”. By this, we mean that we need to understand what the scientists are telling us about the rate at which the climate is changing and what the consequences might be.

I have felt for a long time that there is not much point in listening to the scientists any more. It's too late. We now need to listen to the engineers and project managers. They are the ones who can tell use what can be realistically achieved given the resources, time, people and funds that are available to us, and that will be available, as we attempt to make a transition to a Net Zero economy.

Frank Warnock said...

With multiple tipping points reached, e.g. melting permafrost and the impending "doomsday glacier" among them, the planet is already on hospice. No amount of "cutting emissions" will change anything. Arguably, the 1980 election was the last gasp for humanity, tho' the evidence suggests it was the dawn of the industrial revolution.

In 1978, President Carter proposed that the US freeze oil imports at 1977 levels, and that every American try and conserve (remember the sweater?) and that solar panels be erected everywhere possible. But since Carter asked citizens to make personal sacrifices, and take personal responsibility over their future, he was unpopular in this -- the most ignorant, self-important, self-centered society on the planet.

By the beginning of the Reagan presidency, even Carter's aborted attempts at conservation gave the OPEC nations skid marks in their undies. Reagan, of course, opened the oil import spigots wide, i.e. "morning in America", spelling the end for life on earth as we know it.

SomeoneInAsia said...

And this is the sorry state of affairs to which Western 'Civ' has led us all. How grateful we should all be for this great benefaction!

For centuries if not millennia sociocultural milieux like India, China and Japan went about their business in an ecologically perfectly sustainable manner. Then, fancying himself the bearer of the torch heralding a new era of human progress and enlightenment, ol' Whitey came throwing his weight around the planet and trampling on everyone else -- often with the aid and encouragement of his Jewish lackey (or master, rather?), if I may be so bold as to point that out -- the justification he gave himself being that anyone stupid enough not to have thought of this new way of life and not to see its worth deserved to be trampled upon. The result was that everyone had no choice but to trade in their traditional ways of life for this new one. Think of all the suffering and psychological trauma that had to be endured. Well, if we can all provide a better, happier life for our children and their children, then perhaps all that suffering was worth it and ol' Whitey did the right thing after all. But the facts speak rather differently: our children and their children, and probably us as well, are all about to be in for another jolly good round of suffering and psychological trauma, courtesy of this new way of life.

Consider China. Please don't tell me the Chinese chose of their own free will to adopt the said new way of life. The very notion of changing completely to a new way of life dictated by what they initially viewed as foreign barbarians would have been balked at by any Chinese before the Opium Wars. Then why did they eventually adopt the said new way of life? Because if they didn't it would have remained easy for the barbarians to continue to trample upon them. (I'd like to know too if there could ever have been a certain CCP had it not been for what the barbarians did.) As for those who would enumerate to me all the failings of pre-industrial Chinese society, my simple response is: is the new way of life really an improvement? It is one thing to practice foot-binding among females, to have no parliamentary democracy etc etc, but quite another level of bad altogether to bring about the sixth great mass extinction, in addition to all the imminent ills spelled out in the article above.

All in all, Western man's pride in his 'great achievements' would seem to me a little less than justified. What number of great literary figures and great scientific discoveries will make up for all the said imminent ills facing us all?

Gandhi was once asked what he thought of Western 'Civ'. He replied, "Oh, I think that would be a good idea."