Must we choose between fossil fuels and renewables?
In October 2018, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report warning that even 2 degrees of warming of the planet could lead to catastrophic effects of global proportions. The panel’s analysis concluded that limiting warming to 1.5 degrees instead could, for example, mean the difference between survival and extinction for thousands of plant and animal species.
We have already witnessed a warming of 1 degree, and voices have grown in number, volume and urgency to take action against climate change.
One year later, the world’s biggest publicly traded oil company, ExxonMobil, announced that it will expand its partnerships with U.S. and foreign universities and research labs. In recent years it has invested more than $75 million in these institutions; and in May of last year the company signed an unprecedented $100 million deal with the U.S. Energy Department. The firm has also signed a five-year agreement to work with the Indian Institute of Technology to study biofuels, gas conversion and industrial sector emissions reduction.
These two examples make crystal clear the two most salient points surrounding energy and the environment. First, huge negative impacts of climate change are no hoax, they are real. Second, energy companies are committed to research and development in cleaner energy, both fossil-based and renewables.
Any discussion of the energy-and-climate change issue must first face some cold, hard facts — mainly that 80 percent of total world energy comes from fossil fuels, 10 percent biofuels, 5 percent nuclear and 5 percent renewable (hydro, wind, solar, geothermal). No matter how much we wish it were otherwise, the world’s heavy dependence on fossil fuels will continue for the foreseeable future.
To begin with, fossil fuels will remain essential since they are plentiful, easy to find, extremely efficient, easy to transport and generate thousands of jobs. Of course, the downside is environmental degradation, the need for truckloads of reserves, public health issues, the risk of oil spills, worker health (especially coal miners) and the fact that fossil fuels are a finite energy source.
As for renewable energy, the drivers of growth have been technological innovation, corporate and investor action, public opinion, declining costs, pollution’s relation to climate change and renewable energy targets that countries have collectively adopted. Clearly, there are many pros regarding renewables: Stable energy prices, a continual and reliable source of energy, low greenhouse gas emissions, large-scale job creation and low-cost operations. On the slip side, development costs are high, they are unable to produce large quantities and the space needed (e.g., wind farms) can be extensive.
So what about “clean” fossil fuels, especially “clean coal”? This term refers to technologies used by power plants to make coal cleaner to burn but not the fuel itself. Only carbon capture can cut C02 emissions. Moreover, there are only two coal plants in the world that use the technique, and it comprises less than 0.1 percent capacity. It is important to note, also, that while coal accounts for two-thirds of CO2 emissions, it represents less than one-third of electricity generated in the U.S.
To think we can wean ourselves off fossil fuels any time soon is a pipedream. Yet, especially during this election year, energy and climate change have moved front and center among Democratic primary contenders. Sen Bernie Sanders’s (I-Vt.) Green New Deal, a $16 billion anti-growth piñata, is a regressive tax that would significantly hurt the poor and slow growth and labor productivity.
However, Colin Cunliff of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation has identified 10 priorities that have already won bipartisan majorities at the committee level in at least one chamber and could form the nucleus of a bipartisan energy package.
The global economy has made significant strides in raising energy efficiency over the past 30 years. With better technology, advances in renewable energy sources and corporate awareness, the economy is relying on more efficient use of energy. The accelerating deployment of renewables will alter the global distribution of power, relations between states, the risk of conflict and the social, economic and environmental drivers of geopolitical instability.
So, must we choose between fossil fuels and renewables? In reality, there is no choice. These two sources of energy will continue to coexist for the foreseeable future, as technological breakthroughs achieve both greater efficiency and a cleaner planet.
Jerry Haar is a professor of international business at Florida International University and a global fellow of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.