Category Archives: Co-benefits

Additional benefits associated with moving beyond fossil fuels

The suffering of coal miners

One of the reasons why humanity ought to move beyond coal as a source of energy is because coal mining is such a dangerous and unpleasant undertaking. Large numbers of people die every year from accidents and from lung disease, and many more experience serious but non-fatal health consequences.

This photo series from does an excellent job of showing what coal mining does on a human scale.

Climate change and Dick Cheney logic

There is a certain odd sense in which the ethics of dealing with climate change resemble the doctrine former American Vice President Dick Cheney supported toward terrorism.

Cheney thought that the possibility of terrorists gaining control of weapons of mass destruction was so worrisome that it was worth undertaking enormous efforts – and making considerable sacrifices – to stop it. The basic moral logic behind this is that it is unjust for an innocent person to die in a terrorist attack, and that governments should take action to prevent such injustices from occurring.

The biggest problem with this strategy may be the ways in which the same sorts of activities that could help to prevent terrorist attacks also have sharply negative and corrosive effects on society at large. They include things like torture, constant surveillance of everybody, unchecked authority for the security services, and so on. Doing these things probably reduces the odds of terrorism, at least in the short term, but also ends up making society rather worse.

The moral logic of dealing with climate change is similar to this Cheney terrorist logic insofar as it also recognizes that innocent people suffer an injustice when they are harmed or killed because of dangerous climate change. Climate change is also a problem that governments can take action to mitigate.

Rather happily, the kind of actions this involve tend to be things that have positive secondary effects. The key action required to prevent dangerous climate change is the abandonment of fossil fuels as sources of energy. In addition to limiting the accumulation of greenhouse gas pollution in the atmosphere, moving beyond fossil fuels promises to reduce geopolitical tensions by limiting the economic importance of volatile regions like the Middle East (which would also reduce the temptation for outside powers to meddle in those regions). It would also reduce the level of toxic air pollution in the atmosphere, and involve the spread of more efficient technologies in areas like buildings and transport. Moving away from fossil fuels also avoids the land destruction, habitat loss, and water pollution that accompanies activities like hydraulic fracturing for natural gas and oil sands production.

When it comes to climate change, we have the opportunity to stave off a substantial injustice while achieving other desirable outcomes at the same time. Hopefully, those opportunities will be seized.

Climate change and layered uncertainty

One of the trickiest things about making projections about climate change is that what it will end up being like is intertwined with the question of how a number of other important trends develop. For instance, there is the question of how long conventional reserves of coal, oil, and gas will last. Related to that is the question of whether prices of those conventional fossil fuels will increase considerably with scarcity, fall as they are eclipsed by new forms of energy, or something different. Tied to those questions is the unknown future development pathways of all the world’s major economies. Will rapid growth continue in China? If so, what implications will that have for climate and energy? What will the pace of development and deployment be for renewable energy, particularly given different potential policy approaches.

It is possible to imagine many possible global trajectories. In some, climate change impacts prove serious earlier. In others, effects only emerge later. In some, those effects are concentrated in some geographic areas. In other scenarios, different parts of the world experience the largest changes.

We will not be able to ‘wait and see’ how major trends develop, before making our choices about how to deal with climate change. Rather, we need to choose in the face of layered uncertainty. Given that inevitable situation, I would argue that the only prudent approach is to pursue a set of strategies that would prevent disastrous outcomes from occurring, regardless of which predictions prove accurate on various important questions. We cannot, for instance, simply assume that renewable energy, or nuclear energy, or some other energy source will automatically become inexpensive and widely deployed enough in time to prevent the worst effects of climate change. We must also be prepared for scenarios in which conventional fossil fuels become scarce more rapidly than expected, unconventional sources prove uneconomical or slow to deploy, and prices rise substantially.

Avoiding disastrous outcomes requires pursuing a resilient approach that can deal with surprises. It requires investing in numerous technologies and approaches, with the knowledge that not everything will work and the humility to recognize that we cannot know in advance which technologies will be successful and which will not be. That means driving investment and innovation in every major energy source that has the potential to serve humanity’s energy needs in a low-carbon or carbon-neutral way. This clearly includes renewables and nuclear fission. It also includes biomass for stationary power generation and biofuels for vehicles. It includes basic research into promising but speculative technologies like nuclear fusion and space-based solar power. It includes continued and expanded work on energy efficiency.

In addition to all of those things, we need to stop assuming that the world of the future will basically be like the world of today. It may not be the case that energy use will be at the same level fossil fuels have allowed us to reach, either in absolute or per-capita terms. It may not be the case that the most energy-intensive aspects of our current lifestyle will be able to continue. At the same time, there are many benefits that could be realized though the transformation of our energy systems. Fossil fuels produce large quantities of deadly air and water pollution. They also contribute to conflict and geopolitical instability.

If we succeed in moving from a world that runs on dirty, climate-altering fossil fuels to a world that operates much more efficiently using energy that largely comes from renewable sources, we will have achieved one of the most remarkable and positive transformations in the broad sweep of human history. We will also have set humanity up to endure indefinitely, without undermining the relatively stable climate that has accompanied and facilitated the emergence of human civilization. Exactly how we can do that remains unknown, but it will require us to confront layered uncertainty and develop portfolios of effective strategies that allow us to progress to that goal.

Climate wave subsiding

The recent state of global environmental policy reminds me of a quote from Hunter S. Thompson (or from his most famous character, if you prefer). Talking about the drug-related movement he had been a part of, he says: “So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark – that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back”.

It seems that way a bit with climate policy. For a couple of years, it seemed like things were coming together. People agreed about the science (reason to worry), and they agreed about the policy (domestic price on carbon, international agreement on targets).

Now, it seems like the energy of the movement has been sapped, even though the moral and economic arguments are as strong as ever. Activists, journalists, scientists, politicians, and bureaucrats are still right to point to the danger of climate change, the costs of fossil fuels, and the opportunity to power the world renewably. Despite that, the focus of political attention has moved on and the public doesn’t care. Maybe we will need to wait for real catastrophes for that to change.

Or maybe activists need to go back to building that energy, as dispiriting as it has been to be knocked back by a bunch of coal-fired corporations and mega-libertarians. I hope we will rebuild the personal energy required to do that. We can slowly convince people that fossil fuels are not safe bets, that forests and other carbon sinks need to be protected, and that we need to find a new way to get our energy. At the moment, people may be distracted. They have definitely lost their focus on the environment. But people do ultimately care about passing on a decent world. In order to do that, we need to stay on top of the risk posed by climate change, since it threatens to transform everything.

Why care about 2100?

I know it sounds obscure and Klingon to say it, but protecting future generations from climate change is a matter of honour.

As far as scientists can tell, climate change is the most serious major threat facing people a couple of hundred years from now – worse than nuclear proliferation, worse than other environmental problems. If the icesheets really start melting, they will have major problems. How many times in history have dozens of major cities been moved?

At the same time, we have the technology now to stop climate change by abandoning fossil fuels over the span of a few decades. It will be expensive to do that, but it will bring other advantages. Fewer people will die from air pollution. We won’t need to import fuel from dangerous places or produce it in incredibly destructive ways like the oil sands.

It will probably use up a lot of land, but it seems possible that it can be made to work in a way that is fair for all of humanity, with everybody living in comfort.

We are lucky that we live in this generation – the one that will start to pay the cost of decarbonization. That is far preferable to being part of the generation when the actual warming of the planet peaks after all the lags kick in.

Killer coal

Fossil fuels have a negative human impact that goes over and above the climate change they cause:

“One million people a year die prematurely in China from air pollution from energy and industrial sectors,” said Stefan Hirschberg, head of safety analysis at the Paul Scherrer Institute, an engineering research center in Switzerland. More than 10,000 Americans a year die prematurely from the health effects of breathing emissions from coal-burning power plants, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Those deaths are another element that can be set against the higher cost per kilowatt-hour of electricity from sources like wind and solar.

A similar estimate on the number of deaths caused by coal in the United States was posted on this site in September 2010.

Coal and US air pollution deaths

While climate change is the most worrisome problem associated with coal-fired power plants, they also produce large amounts of air pollution that affects human health. A new report from the non-profit Clean Air Task Force estimates that “pollution from coal-fired power plants will result in the premature death of more than 13,000 people [in the United States] this year.

That is definitely something to consider when people argue that we must keep using coal because it is the cheapest source of electricity available. It may be cheap per kilowatt-hour, but it is very costly in other ways.

Europe’s fossil fuel dependence on Russia

One of the most important levers through which Russia can exert pressure on Western European states is by controlling the flow of fossil fuels. As illustrated below, oil and gas pipelines originating in Russia are critical energy lifelines for the rest of Europe:

When Russia turns off the taps – as it sometimes does to put pressure on states like Ukraine – people can find themselves shivering in the cold. This could become even more problematic if pipelines like Nord Stream which circumvent Eastern Europe are completed. Then, Russia will be able to cut off states like Georgia, Ukraine, and Poland without denying fuels to France and Germany.

At the moment, it seems that European states are becoming ever-more dependent on Russia for energy. Partly, that has been the consequence of relying more on gas for electrical power. A recently leaked German report on peak oil highlights the geopolitical dangers associated with dependence on Russian oil and gas. At present, Russia supplies about 35% of German oil imports, along with 37% of natural gas.

In the medium- to long-term, Europe has an opportunity to achieve two major objectives by switching to zero-carbon forms of electricity generation and transport. They can reduce the severity of environmental problems: especially climate change, but also air pollution. At the same time, they can reduce the power that Russia holds over them, and increase their freedom to make policy on Eastern Europe in a more principled way.

One promising alternative is the massive deployment of concentrating solar power stations around the Mediterranean and North Africa, with high voltage direct current transmission lines to bring the electricity to Europe.

Fossil fuels and the resource curse

Territorial disputes over fossil fuel resources are not at all uncommon. In Iraq, Mosul and Kirkuk are contested because of the oil fields around them. The East China Sea has been the location for multiple disputes over gas, between Japan and China. The Spartley Islands in the South China Sea are disputed over largely because of fossil fuel resources, as may become the case with the Falkland Islands again. Allegations of horizontal drilling into Iraqi oilfields provided the pretext for Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. Likewise, Nigeria’s Delta State is a hotbed of conflict. And so on, and so on, around the world.

While a world that is not dependent on fossil fuels is a long way off, it is worth mentioning that a reduction in the bitterness of such conflicts is a likely outcome from states replacing their fossil-fuel-driven energy systems with those based around renewable and zero-carbon forms of energy. Even if states that produce oil and gas continue to use it, diminished demand from other states would reduce prices and thus the incentive to go after all available fossil fuel reserves. Without billions of dollars in investment from international oil and gas firms, many of these resources would stay underground where they can induce neither conflict nor climate change. By making fossil fuels less valuable compared to other resources, decarbonization could help to reduce the harm done by the ‘resource curse‘ – the idea that rich stocks of natural resources can make states prone to corruption, conflict, and mismanagement.

None of this is to say that there is a clear and direct link between the move towards renewable power and decreased conflicts over resources. Indeed, there may even be conflicts over new kinds of resources as new forms of energy grow in prominence. Still, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to hope that the transition of the global economy towards carbon neutrality could help draw some of the venom out from these conflicts and allow people to focus their attention on less self-destructive undertakings. That would be all the more welcome, given the extent to which stresses from climate change may exacerbate conflicts in other parts of the world.