By Michael Lynch
One aspect of the debate over climate change policy centers on calls to ban the usage of fossil fuels, which is popular in some quarters but extremely questionable as effective policy. As Roland Geyer pointed out in the Guardian recently, the world has used up most of its carbon budget if it wants to meet the target of keeping global warming to 1.5 degrees C. Therefore, a ban would only partially reduce GHG emissions and at an exorbitant costs.
And among the emissions targets and goal, a number of cities are turning to bans on cars, or at least gasoline powered cars, and natural gas heating in buildings. Utilities wanting to switch to natural gas run into opposition on the grounds that reducing emissions is not enough, they must be completely eliminated.
This is reminiscent of nothing so much as those nuclear power protestors in the 1970s who insisted that no level of radiation was safe and therefore nuclear power plants, which emit minute amounts, should be banned. Most abandoned that argument upon discovering that radiation is omnipresent, and impossible to avoid: power plant emissions would make a negligible difference.
Similarly, switching to renewables or even nuclear doesn’t eliminate emissions, only reduces them—and sometimes not all that much. The manufacture and construction of wind turbines and solar power, as well as their maintenance, requires significant amounts of energy even if they do not require ‘fuel’ per se. Which beggars the question: if the approach taken to fossil fuel consumption is that no greenhouse gas emissions are permissible, why shouldn’t renewables also be banned?
Geyer correctly notes that bans were imposed on lead in gasoline and CFCs with a high degree of success, and argues that same could be done with fossil fuels overall. But the cost-benefit equation is very different from substituting ethanol for lead as an octane enhancer or the varied substitutes for CFCs as refrigerants and industrial cleansers. (He remarks that renewables are cheaper than fossil fuels and that lifetime costs for electric vehicles are lower than for petroleum fueled vehicles, which is highly questionable but the subject for another day.)
The reason why this matters is that some uses of fossil fuels are harder to eliminate than others and, indeed, some can be beneficial to the climate. The U.S., despite the past administration’s opposition to climate change policy, has seen large reductions in CO2 emissions because of switching from coal to gas in power generation. Indeed, gas power enables higher reliance on renewables because it provides backup for a highly unreliable resource.
Further, there remains a huge amount of coal being burned around the planet (including in the U.S.), and much of it could be displaced by natural gas relatively quickly. Stranded gas in eastern Siberia, the Caspian area, and even the Middle East would be shipped to east and south Asia; indeed, LNG all the way from America is often a cost-effective way to reduce GHG emissions in Asia.
Pre-industrial greenhouse gas emissions were approximately 440 gigatonnes of CO2 equivalent a year, primarily from natural sources, most of which was offset by natural processes. Human caused emissions add about 30 gigatonnes CO2 equivalent a year. A small portion of that is from agriculture, land use, etc., rather than fossil fuel consumption. This is not to imply that those emissions are trivial or irrelevant, but to put the impact of a ban in context. Similarly, the fact that more methane emissions come from agriculture and wetlands than the oil industry doesn’t mean the industry shouldn’t minimize emissions.
Too much of the climate policy debate centers on posturing, that is, proposals that are superficially appealing but not very effective, or not cost-effective. Completely banning fossil fuels is akin to earlier proposals to ban disposable diapers, which initially appealed to many but were quietly disappeared as the relative environmental impacts of cotton and disposal diapers became clear. Unfortunately, many energy decisions face loud opposition from citizen groups who are concerned about climate change but seem not to have a thorough understanding of the complexities of emissions.
The role of climate change policy should be to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the most cost-effective manner (economic efficiency is just as important as energy efficiency), not to pretend that the elimination of one source will somehow be a solution. This is especially true given that some reductions will be very cheap (even profitable) but as complete zero emission (from one source) are approached, costs will rise very steeply. ‘First, do no harm’ is the physicians creed, but perhaps should be added the optometrists’ maxim, ‘Better now, or better now.’
This article appeared on the Forbes website at https://www.forbes.com/sites/michaellynch/2021/03/24/dont-ban-fossil-fuels-absolutism-in-climate-change-policy-is-a-vice/?sh=3545a38e2541