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Mapping the moral high ground on fossil fuels

When I was writing Isotopes: A Very Short Introduction, I began to wonder why it took us so long to appreciate the effect that burning fossil fuels is having on the Earth’s atmosphere. The so-called Suess effect in radiocarbon (14C) has been known for decades. Geological sources of carbon like coal and oil, that formed many millions of years ago, long since lost their radiocarbon through radioactive decay – they contain 14C-free “dead” carbon. From the mid-19th century the radiocarbon activity of the atmosphere declined as dead carbon from fossil fuels was dug out of the ground and burnt producing carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere. The nuclear tests of the 1950s and 60s reversed this trend but that’s another story. Why did we not realise that such a massive shift would have dramatic consequences?

Isotopic records from ice cores drilled in Greenland and Antarctica indicate that the Earth’s temperature and atmospheric CO2 levels are closely linked. Natural oscillations between glacial (cold) and inter-glacial (warm) conditions have occurred for at least half a million years. During an ice age atmospheric CO2 is about 180 parts per million (ppm), at peak interglacial CO2 increases to about 280ppm. Ours is a time close to peak interglacial but recently we have just passed 400ppm. With CO2 at the peak of the natural cycle we have added another 120ppm of CO2. 120ppm or 0.012% doesn’t sound much but CO2 is a powerful molecule. Importantly, we did this in a hundred years or so, the natural cycle takes 10,000 years or more. Climate change is real and we definitely need to control CO2 emissions.

Two years ago my university made a decision to become the first European university to divest its interests in fossil fuels; a decision that attracted lots of positive publicity. When the story broke I remember explaining to my daughter why I wasn’t particularly impressed by the moral high ground the university was claiming. She was bemused that I was so against a decision that was being lauded in the media. So, why wouldn’t someone so persuaded by the need to restrict CO2 emissions support a decision to divest in fossil fuels?

Recently, I visited Whitelee wind farm, Europe’s largest onshore wind farm – actually, I just realised how disingenuous the word ‘farm’ is in this context – it’s a power station! Whitelee is on Eaglesham Moor – a bleak place where a regular supply of wind is guaranteed. The site has 215 wind turbines which together are able to generate a maximum of 539 million watts or megawatts (MW). The total UK wind power capacity is about 13 thousand million watts or gigawatts (GW).

Whitelee Wind Farm, by Iain Thompson. CC-BY-SA-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

13 GW is a little less than the electricity the UK uses at 3am. Energy experts talk about electricity in terms of ‘baseload’ and ‘dispatchable’. Baseload is the minimum needed to keep the grid working – about 17 GW. Dispatchable is the additional power needed to respond quickly to demand – at 6pm UK dispatchable is roughly an extra 40 GW. The UK relies mainly on nuclear and gas to deliver baseload but the vast majority of dispatchable still comes from coal – about 25 GW at peak demand. The moral high ground might appear to involve fossil fuel divestment but abandoning coal and gas would have massive impact on security of electricity supply.

It isn’t just electricity; heating makes up more than 50% of energy use and 82% of UK households depend on gas for heating. About a quarter of UK homes live in fuel poverty, defined as needing more than 10% of household income to keep warm. Homes without mains gas are more likely to be in fuel poverty because they rely on more expensive oil and electrical heating. Experts talk about the energy ‘trilemma’ – how do we ensure (i) security of supply while maintaining (ii) environmental sustainability and (iii) affordability? I think there is a serious political problem that the electoral cycle does not encourage the long-term planning and investment that is required to address the trilemma.

So, I simply pose the question – what is socially responsible? Saving the planet? Well, that usually actually means saving the people and an alien might observe that the people are largely the problem. Earth did rather well without us for about 4.5 billion years and my instinct is that it will manage pretty well when we are gone. Is unreliable electricity supply socially responsible? No, but it might become the norm if we removed fossil fuel power generation. Is it socially responsible to plunge people into fuel poverty? No, but the obvious corollary of the energy trilemma is more expensive energy. Is it socially responsible to expect other parts of the world not to aspire to western lifestyles? No, and it is worth noting that China’s famous growth of coal-fired electricity has seen 650 million people taken out of poverty and been accompanied by an 80% decrease in female illiteracy and 70% decrease in infant mortality.

So, what’s the answer? Well, I don’t think we are going back to living without heat, electricity, and transport any time soon. To my mind we need to use the same ingenuity that caused the ‘carbon crisis’ to engineer our way out. Improving the fuel efficiency and emissions standards of our homes and vehicles surely has a part to play. Making such technology affordable is also a key ingredient. But I think we also have to explore new technologies. Using thorium instead of uranium to generate nuclear power is one option and has the advantage of producing nuclear waste that is much shorter-lived. Returning carbon to the deep Earth for long-term storage in geological reservoirs is another viable technology. Local renewable technologies are attractive but might require an unprecedented (in the UK) level of community cooperation. None of this will be cheap and much of the expertise we will need resides in the current nuclear and fossil fuel industries. It might turn out that the moral high ground is actually to invest in those industries.

Featured image credit: ‘Windmills and renewable energy’, by makunin. CC0 public domain via Pixabay.

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