PART TWO: KEEP FOSSIL FUELS UNDERGROUND
Does global warming really matter? What evidence supports the predictions of catastrophe made by the Global Sustainability Institute?
There is already plenty of evidence (although our politicians and much of the media tend to play it down). Here are some examples.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration of the United States has identified these indicators of what is happening as the world warms up: [i]
· atmospheric temperatures over land, over oceans, and in the troposphere are increasing, as are sea surface temperature and the heat content of the oceans;
· atmospheric humidity is rising;
· glaciers, snow on mountain tops, and sea ice are decreasing in size;
· sea levels are rising.
What are the consequences of such changes? The website Global Issues notes the following climate-induced tragedies in 2010. [ii]
· across western Russia high temperatures caused drought, wildfires and crop failures where more than 15,000 people died;
· in the Upper Indus Valley more than a foot of rain fell across a wide area leading to flooding down the Indus River which killed 1,600 people and displaced many millions;
· in northern Brazil a severe drought parched the land and shrunk the Rio Negro to its lowest level since records began in 1902;
· in Yunnan Province, China a persistent drought (judged worst in 100 years) led to major crop losses and lack of drinking water;
· in Queensland, Australia floods forced the evacuation of thousands of people from towns and cities. At least 90 towns and over 200,000 people were affected. [iii]
So, to avoid the widespread devastation due to climate change induced by global warming we need to stop burning fossil fuels. Burning coal, natural gas and oil increases the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere which steps up the greenhouse effect whereby solar energy raises the surface temperature of the Earth.
Atmospheric carbon dioxide and global temperature have both climbed over a 125 year period [iv]. (See this reference for an impressive graph which unfortunately can't be reproduced here). The scientific evidence is that these are linked and increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide (in company with other pollutants) is responsible for the increase in global temperature.
On this evidence across the globe countries should urgently reduce fossil fuel burning. The recognition of this by 195 nations at the Paris COP21 meeting in December 2015 was widely welcomed, but will they act quickly enough and can they cope with the outcome? If fossil fuels are kept underground, the resultant hiatus will probably cause many national economies to shrink.
The age of economic growth in the “developed” countries may be coming to an end, although the economies of the “undeveloped” need to grow. But a shrinking economy does not necessarily mean that the happiness of lives will shrink: it depends upon what else is done to change the existing political framework.
What will this mean for Britain? Figure 1 gives a breakdown of users and fuels in the UK in 2015. Transport is the largest user and this accounts for petroleum being the most used fuel. Half of this usage is by private vehicles.
Figure 1 Users and fuels in the UK 2015 [v]
(A total of 140 thousand kilotons of oil equivalent)
BY USER 2015 BY FUELS 2015
Transport sector 37.5% Petroleum 47.5%
Domestic sector 27.0% Natural gas 29.0%
Industry 16.5% Electricity 18.0%
Services 13.5% Biofuels/waste 5.5%
Non-energy use 5.5%
Energy consumption in the UK has changed markedly since 1970 [v]. (See this reference for a graph showing these changes). For 40 years the energy consumption of transport climbed but has recently steadied; domestic consumption increased at the end of the 20th century (probably due to houses being installed with central heating) but has declined slightly since 2004 with ups and downs probably determined by the weather; industry now uses a third of the energy consumed in 1970; and the service industries (government departments, schools, universities, hospitals, surgeries, shops, hotels, financial services, real estate and computer activities) have hardly changed in their energy consumption.
Suppose that electricity – from wind power, solar power, tidal power, and hydro-sources – replaces all of the fossil fuels currently used. At present under a fifth of our energy is supplied by electricity (and 30% of that in 2014 was generated in coal-fired power stations [vi]), so a massive development is needed.
How would the different sectors respond?
This would be massively affected. At present 49% of transport fuel consumption is by petrol or diesel powered cars. They could be replaced by electric cars. These have been around for some time but have not been popular because they can only make relatively short journeys before having their batteries recharged. The expense of the changeover might reduce the number of private vehicles, resulting, for example, in more children walking to and from school and more people using bicycles for short journeys and trains for longer ones.
Another 25% of transport fuel consumption is freight on roads. Recently electric trucks have become available, but few have been manufactured because of high cost. If freight becomes more expensive it can be expected that goods will begin to be manufactured and purchased locally and so reduce transport.
Air travel used 23% of the UK’s transport fuel in 2015. It is unlikely that planes can be fuelled by anything other than liquid fuel but rather than petroleum, biofuels such as ethanol fermented from sugars may be a possible alternative. But this requires land to grow the product that will be fermented and may interfere with food production. It is noteworthy that 1 in 5 flights in and out of the UK are for business purposes and 4 in 5 for leisure pursuits. If the price of fuel goes up, which is most likely, the extent of aviation will probably shrink. Business may make more use of video links for conferences and holiday-makers may choose to stay in the UK.
At present nearly two-thirds of domestic energy comes from natural gas and one fifth from electricity. Little oil and even less coal is burned. In general gas heats homes and electricity runs the appliances – televisions, computers, washing machines etc and provides light; both are used in cooking.
Electricity could, of course, provide domestic heat. In principle all domestic energy could be electric and if every domestic roof had solar panels and effective energy storage systems were developed, coupled with every property being effectively insulated, the domestic market could probably dispense with fossil fuels.
One third of the energy used by industry comes from natural gas and another third from electricity and these support a wide range of manufactured goods including foods, paper products, textiles and clothing, furniture, electrical and electronic equipment, and vehicles. In most cases it should be feasible (if costly) for these industries to eschew natural gas and be fuelled solely by electricity.
Oil (petroleum) is both fuel and raw material for the chemical industry and steel making requires the solid fuel needed by blast furnaces: these industries cannot survive without fossil fuels and so they would need to be exempt from any ban on fossil fuels.
Data for the year 2000 shows that 55% of the energy consumed by this sector was for heating, presumably mostly by gas or oil: it could be replaced by electricity. Lighting used 15% and is, of course, electric. Hot water required 9% and catering 10%: again these could be fuelled by electricity. So the service sector could be energized by electricity alone.
In principle it seems that nearly all of our demand for fossil fuels could be replaced by environmental ways of generating electricity, but this depends on effective storage facilities being developed and massive investment in solar panels for house tops, wind farms on-shore and off-shore, and tidal generators as well as hydropower plants.
A good start would be if some of the factories currently making weapons of war switched to work on the various generators of electricity. The UK’s biggest arms company, BAE Systems, manufactured and sold weapons worth £20 billion in 2015 [vii] and employs several hundred workers. The harsh argument supporting the arms trade is that it provides jobs. Here is the chance for alternative work. Yes, “swords into ploughshares”.
Ironically these developments will probably require fossil fuels to construct – perhaps an appropriate end for the sources of energy that made the industrial revolution possible and brought us to our present state of affluence but now is beginning to make our world uninhabitable through climate change caused by their combustion product – carbon dioxide.
[iii] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2010%E2%80%9311_Queensland_floods (seen 31 Oct16)
[iv] zFact and http://www.climatecentral.org/gallery/graphics/co2-and-rising-global-temperatures (seen 31Oct16)
[v] Energy Consumption in the UK (2016), Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy
[vii] https://www.rt.com/uk/326148-britain-arms-trade-weapons/ (seen 12Nov16)