Reframing the Debate about the Future of Our Energy Supply

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Today is Election Day—and no matter who wins, our energy problems will continue to be a prominent but unfortunately neglected issue. To date, the political debate has been oversimplified and presented as a battle between the moral imperatives of protecting the environment and the critical need to preserve our economic interests.

Too often, our difficult energy challenges are portrayed as a choice between making a profit and reducing carbon dioxide emissions. In truth, it is a complex issue as it also involves the needs of the public, including their need and right to lead healthy and productive lives.

My colleagues and I have attempted with our book, A Cubic Mile of Oil, to provide an unvarnished look at different energy sources so that we can all engage in an informed dialog about the choices we make.

The challenge of supplying energy to the world’s population is overwhelming. The world depends on energy for its sustenance, and certainly for its growth, yet experts are asking us to reduce our energy use in the name of sustainability. This in effect is the challenge we have not solved.

Even at a modest estimated growth rate of 2% per year (corresponding to a doubling every 36 years), the world’s energy demand by 2050 will be more than 7 Cubic Miles of Oil, or CMO (one CMO equals approximately 26.5 billion barrels of oil and represents 1/3 of the current global consumption annually). The cumulative energy consumed from 2000 to 2050 is projected to be between 160 and 270 CMO. When we look at what it takes to develop an infrastructure capable of producing even 1 CMO of energy, we realize that there are no easy solutions: It will take an enormous effort sustained over many decades.

To meet future demands, we need to develop ALL sources of energy. In a recent blog post, I wrote:

  • To many in the sustainability community, fossil energy is an anathema. Continued use of fossil resources—oil, coal, and natural gas—poses threats to the environment through the emission of pollutants and greenhouse gases. The fact that they are a limited or exhaustible resource means that in the future we could either run out of them, or their extraction will get progressively harder to a point that it takes more energy to extract them than would be derived from their use. Using fossil energy is clearly not sustainable, and the world has to look to renewable resources for long-term survival.
  • While it is true that increased use of coal only exacerbates the global struggle to curb carbon dioxide emissions, the moral imperative to protect the environment has to be balanced by the equally strong moral imperative of providing energy to enable people to live healthy, productive lives. Between 1981 and 2005, China increased its use of coal four-fold, but over the same period it also lifted about 400 million people out of poverty.

We can’t simply turn off the spigot of fossil fuels. That would ignore the social justice of providing people around the world with sufficient affordable energy to enable them to live healthy, productive lives at a higher standard of living. And if we cannot supply sufficient energy to the rest of the world, we arrogantly condemn societies that currently do not use much energy to continue living an impoverished existence.

So what happens to greenhouse gases? Aren’t we then inexorably marching toward a calamity? Not if we recognize the need for a differentiated response. For starters, societies that have high per-capita energy consumption can look for opportunities to conserve and to adopt more efficient technologies.

One opportunity is to reduce fugitive natural gas from landfills, as well as during oil and gas production. As discussed in our book, reducing beef consumption can make a significant impact on many levels. Fewer cattle would produce less methane and require less feed, which is produced by using energy-intensive fertilizers.

Other specific actions would differ for different societies. For example, in regions where the population must forage for wood and burn it for fuel, we should provide natural gas or electricity, thus improving health, reducing deforestation, and reducing atmospheric warming caused by soot. The availability of shale gas through hydraulic fracturing has allowed the U.S. to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by switching coal-fired power plants to natural gas plants.

Policymakers should focus on implementing changes that can have significant and immediate impact on greenhouse gas emissions.

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