Can We Really Eliminate Fossil Fuels?

Can We Really Eliminate Fossil Fuels?

Our climate crisis series has identified the issues the world will face as it copes with rising temperatures, and the concomitant crises of extreme weather, sea level rise, radical and unpredictable changes in land use, farming land availability, the spread of pandemic illness and of pests, and what seems like and endless list of potential crises and disasters.

Contributions to meeting this challenge have been varied – from a good start, the US seems to be on a retreat to a future where planting trees is thought to be a viable response whilst actively preserving and developing high energy demand, high polluting industries. The European Union is placing serious weight behind carbon neutrality. China has about one thousand gigawatts of existing coal capacity with a further 121 gigawatts of coal plants under construction, whilst at the same time leading the world in the electrification of its public transport fleets. The China Electricity Council has requested a further 300-500 coal plants to be cleared for construction between now and 2030. India continues to build new coal plants, and alongside the growth of its middle class, is increasing its oil imports. Australia is the world’s largest net exporter of coal, accounting for 32% of global exports, with a government that has so far resolutely failed to even consider tackling its all too obvious climate issues.

Commitments to meet the Paris Accords are in place (except for the US, which will withdraw from them on 1 June this year). But oil, gas and coal demand continue to rise. Oil and gas provide 54% of energy demand now and will still be 48% of energy demand in 2040 (IEA World Energy Outlook).

According to BP’s 2018 Energy Outlook, the share of the average oil barrel dedicated to transportation fuel will peak at 58% in 2025 and begin to decline. Oil consumed by industry, buildings, and power will also slump. Chemicals, however, will continue to grow, from 16% of oil demand in 2020 to 20% by 2040.

And it is this distinction which ensures that for the foreseeable future, the world will still need oil and gas. Demand for plastics – the most familiar group of petrochemical products – has outpaced that of all other bulk materials (such as steel, aluminium or cement), and has nearly doubled since 2000. Petrochemicals will be over a third of the growth in oil demand to 2030, and nearly half to 2050, ahead of trucks, aviation and shipping. Petrochemicals will consume an additional 56 billion cubic metres of natural gas by 2030, equivalent to about half of Canada’s total gas consumption today.

Why? Because, if we wish to maintain our current living conditions, they are vital.

  • Plastic packaging for food and other commercial products can be made from a range of petrochemical products, including polyethylene and polystyrene
  • Globally, more than half of ammonia is converted to urea, which is in turn mainly used as a fertiliser used to increase crop yields and boost food production
  • Synthetic rubber is a major component of tires for cars, trucks and bicycles, and is mainly derived from the petrochemical butadiene
  • Many of the laundry detergents and items of clothing in our washing machines are derived from petrochemicals, such as surfactants and polyester fibre (https://www.iea.org/reports/the-future-of-petrochemicals )
  • They are also found in many parts of the modern energy system, including solar panels, wind turbine blades, batteries, thermal insulation for buildings, and electric vehicle parts.

So the future is not, and cannot be, petrochemical free, under any realistic scenario. It is, quite simply, and at our current stage of replacement technology, impossible.

Much can be done. Vehicle electrification is an obvious route, but by no means the only one (and it is in itself fraught with issues – for a start, the power grids which supply service stations are not strong enough to allow for substantial implementation of electric charging points https://www.ft.com/content/594345dc-20d0-11ea-b8a1-584213ee7b2b ). Increased electrification of rural areas in the developing world will minimise carbon emissions from cooking fires. The UK’s entire energy reduction target could be met by a comprehensive system of house insulation to reduce household energy demand. Advances in power storage technology would make renewable energy properly able to replace power stations. Massive investments in carbon capture and storage would point a way to minimising and reversing the harm already done.

But – currently at least – the aim to eliminate the use of fossil fuels is a pipe dream. Not only is the world dependent on the energy they produce, petrochemicals are foundational to the developed world. Whilst pressure groups and environmental organisations campaign for a complete end to fossil fuel extraction and use, those of us who seek scenarios for the future where humanity survives and thrives on the planet may have to face the unpleasant reality that all our short term futures include the extraction, burning and use of fossil fuels. The trick is going to be developing swiftly enough that that use does not add to the carbon burden; and that the infrastructural issues which lead to energy waste are tackled with as much force as the issues that make for easy headlines.

Written by Jonathan Blanchard Smith, SAMI Fellow and Director

The views expressed are those of the author(s) and not necessarily of SAMI Consulting.

SAMI Consulting was founded in 1989 by Shell and St Andrews University. They have undertaken scenario planning projects for a wide range of UK and international organisations. Their core skill is providing the link between futures research and strategy.

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Image by M C from Pixabay

2 Comments
  1. An interesting perspective indeed.

    The UK is currently funding oil and gas overseas. See this: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-51216084

    “Last year, the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) published a report criticising UKEF as an “elephant in the room undermining the UK’s international climate and development targets”

    Practicality over paradise?

  2. Jonathan’s challenge is a good one – too much of our thinking on reducing carbon emissions is wishful thinking. The Paris targets will most likely not be hit, and even if they were temperatures would still rise to dangerous levels. But conversely the fossil fuel industry may be refusing to face up to the reality that it has stranded assets – resources that cannot be used if we are to get anywhere near controlling emissions.

    Yes, lots of oil and gas production will be used to produce plastics. But the backlash against plastics is also increasing – first “single-use” and eventually against most plastic.

    Survival is optional. But I am encouraged by increasingly vocal and effective challenges to the status quo – which of course, paradoxically, is unsustainable.

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