About 40 years ago, the search for renewable fuels to power motor vehicles went into overdrive because the world’s oil was running out.
Today, the search is even more urgent because the world has got too much oil (and coal and gas). If we burn it all, it will generate enough
greenhouse gas (principally carbon dioxide, CO2) to cause catastrophic climate change. Every serious scientist, economist and politician must know that.
Technically, we are well able convert to alternative energy sources. We already know how to develop a range of clean renewables (nuclear, hydro, solar, wind, tidal, biofuel etc) that could meet all our energy needs and we will surely discover and harness plenty more.
But even if every motor vehicle in the world (there are more than a billion) could be instantly converted to electric power tomorrow, it would not cut the emission of greenhouse gases nor reduce climate change by one atom.
That’s because the oil no longer consumed by cars would still be burnt by other users.
The same applies to every other type of user of any and all the fossil fuels. All the clever and clean stuff that is coming on stream now is supplying energy in addition to – not instead of – oil, coal and gas. Our consumption of them is at an all-time high and it is rising exponentially.
Right now we are in the midst of yet another UN Climate Change Conference – the 19th summit of its kind that will, once again, fail to provide an answer to the problem of global warming. Because it is not asking the right question! Among the thousands of issues and ideas bouncing around the political talk shops, the one that matters most is too difficult to mention: To limit greenhouse gases to a level the world can cope with (another 600 gigatons is the limit) we must leave three quarters of our known fossil fuel reserves in the ground!
Why is that so intractable? Because those reserves (and the infrastructure that supports them) are worth hundreds of trillions of dollars to the countries that own them, the systems that harvest them, and non-energy investments that depend on them.
How do we turn off a tap like that? To put the challenge in perspective: it would be easier to ask every country in the world to agree to redraw its borders! Perhaps our best hope of a solution is to accept that caps and quotas on fossil fuel production and consumption will never happen, and start figuring out how to survive despite that.
There are ways. One is called “carbon capture”, a science looking at ways to take gargantuan surpluses of CO2 out of the air and put it back where it belongs In the ground. That’s technically feasible but logistically enormous. But that or its equivalents, is surely what everyone should be talking about and where every available cent of investment should be going on nothing less than a war-chest basis.
So it’s tough to watch that option struggling on a budget of almost nothing while billions are spent on lobbying policy makers against remedial action and on the hunt for even more deposits of fossil fuels and new ways to extract them. Humans will thoroughly deserve the consequences…in our children’s lifetimes.