Friday, January 23, 2015

Begone, prophets of doom!

The prophets of doom have a long history.  Job was prominent among those who suffered, yet remained confident even when his supposed friends told him the end was nigh. Recently, the breed has spawned a new source of doom - "The fossil fuel industry must be put out of business by 2050 to avoid dangerous climate change" intoned one David le Page recently in the Mail &Guardian. He is part of a long tradition of those who have advised abandoning all hope when facing difficulties.  Fortunately history has a message for him and his kind – the human spirit is such that it can rise to almost every challenge.

Le Page’s thesis is that if mankind consumes much more fossil fuel, the additional carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will cause the average global temperature to increase more than 2oC above what it was in the pre-industrial era before 1800.   It is a difficult thesis to substantiate, if only because we do not know exactly what the average temperature was in the early part of the 19th century.  We only started to have some idea of the global temperature around 1860, when calibrated thermometers became widely available.  Since then, it has warmed by a little over 0.8oC.

The million dollar question is how much of this warming is caused by added carbon dioxide.  Clearly not all of it, because the temperature shot up between 1910 and 1940, and there was little increase in carbon dioxide over that period.  So we don’t know how much extra carbon dioxide is likely to cause the atmosphere to warm by 2oC.  It seems decidedly irrational to propose getting rid of fossil fuels, all our coal, oil and natural gas, to achieve a target which is so ill defined.

Proposing to get rid of fossil fuels becomes even more irrational once you realize than nearly 90% of all the energy we use comes from fossil fuels, worldwide.  South Africa uses fossil fuel for nearly 95% of its needs. So the world cannot be weaned off fossil fuels overnight.  Indeed, right now the use of fossil fuels is growing rapidly, and that growth seems likely to persist as China develops, India follows and Africa finally takes off economically.

There is a direct relationship between economic growth and the consumption of energy.  When nearly 90% of your energy comes from fossil fuels, then there is an equally close relationship between economic growth and growth in fossil fuel use.  So in calling for restrictions on the use of fossil fuels, Le Page is in fact putting in a plea for less development.  That is all very well if you are part of the developed world, but if you are in the process of developing, and have millions living in poverty, then you actually view such pleas as highly irresponsible.

Events in India illustrate this very well.  When China announced it would start to curb its growth in emissions after 2020, and would aim for zero further growth after 2030, India went on record as saying it was not in the least interested in any curbs on emissions.  Its development problems were such that eliminating poverty was far more important than addressing climate change. Recently, it has banned foreign funding of Greenpeace and other non-governmental organisations which it saw as posing a “significant threat to national economic security.”  A decade ago, India was emitting about twice as much carbon dioxide as South Africa; today it is emitting about four times as much and growing at about 100 million tons per annum.

We must not underestimate the benefits of fossil fuel use. If the internal combustion engine had not come into widespread use during the 20th century, we would have seen massive starvation on earth.  In 1900, nearly half the area devoted to agriculture was used to grow fodder for draft and carriage animals.  By 1940, fodder was still vital.  Surprisingly, the largest use of horses in warfare was the German invasion of Russia in 1942, which involved about one million animals.  Fossil fuels have allowed us to convert huge tracts of land to the job of feeding people, not animals.  That, and the increase in productivity due to scientific farming, has meant that the supply of food has grown faster than the human population, so starvation is no longer a real threat for most people.

While renewable energy may have its place, we have to remember that modern economies need constant power.  The South African economy is stuttering right now because even the fossil fuel supply is intermittent.  Try to imagine what life would be like if the most of our power stopped the moment the sun went down.  Yes, we as individuals could probably cope with gas cooking and paraffin lamps or candles. However, most of the energy we generate does not go to individuals, but to keeping our developed economy going.  Less than 100 organisations in South Africa use about two-thirds of all the energy we produce.  Modern economies demand energy to generate wealth, and that energy needs to be available every hour of every day.  An intermittent supply is better than nothing, but much worse than a continuous supply.

Indeed, we can measure the cost of not having energy, and compare it to the cost of generation.  The loss of power early in 2008 hit the South African economy with about R75 for every kilowatt-hour that was lost.  Compare that to the approximately R0.60 that Eskom spends at present to produce a kilowatt-hour. It is infinitely better to have too much power than too little.

Of course, we need sustainable development. But there is no point in committing economic suicide in an attempt to sustain ourselves, as Le Page would have us do. According to the Brundlandt definition, “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Yes, we have to worry about future generations, but we also have to do so without compromising our ability to meet our own needs.  My generation coped with the previous generation’s love affair with the Mutually Assured Destruction of nuclear weapons.  I have every confidence that my children will cope with the far lesser threats of climate change in ways that will amaze us.

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