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Consuming the world's fossil fuels

Mohammed Sofiane Mesbahi
24 November 2004

The greatest threat to the environment is climate change. We need to recognise that the burning of fossil fuels damage the environment and that petroleum is too valuable as a starting material to be merely consumed as a fuel.  We must promote the formation of an International Renewable Energy Agency, argues Mohammed Mesbahi.

Ever since humans lived in the world, we have had an impact on our environment. Over the centuries we have destroyed four fifths of the world’s forests and in some parts of the world caused the formation of deserts. During the last century we have polluted and destroyed the world environment at an ever increasing rate, through:

  • Use of massive quantities of toxic chemicals in agriculture
  • Nuclear power, nuclear reprocessing, nuclear bombs and nuclear waste
  • Pollution of rivers
  • Pollution of seas with heavy metals, radioactive waste insecticides etc
  • War: every war is massively destructive to the environment, both locally and globally

The list goes on and on, including GMOs, over-fishing, etc.

But the greatest threat to the environment is human-driven climate change. There are two main factors involved: the production of greenhouse gasses, such as carbon dioxide, and the destruction of forests. We have been destroying forests slowly ever since prehistoric times, but it was not until the Industrial Revolution in eighteenth century Britain that vast quantities of fossil fuels began to be burned. Coal was subsidised in order to produce goods for export, making Britain a rich and powerful nation, but also making it a highly polluted one. By 1888 the Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius already predicted that carbon dioxide emissions would eventually cause climate change.

After the discovery of petroleum, fossil fuel consumption increased and continued to increase worldwide, even after clean renewable energy technology was discovered. But it was not until 1988 that James Hansen, NASA scientist at the Goddard Institute, warned a meeting in Washington that the continuing increase in carbon dioxide emissions would cause a rise in global temperatures, with catastrophic effects. This is called the greenhouse effect.

There are several greenhouse gasses:

  • Methane: Methane levels have risen a hundred percent since the industrial revolution. Deforestation, decomposition of waste, rice fields and cattle production all produce methane. It is a twenty times more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.
  • Nitrous Oxide:Excessive use of chemical fertilizers and the exhaust from vehicles produce nitrous oxide, which is a two hundred times more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.
  • Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs): Chlorofluorocarbons are used in refrigeration and air conditioning and are a thousand times more powerful greenhouse gasses than carbon dioxide. They take thousands of years to break down.
  • Carbon Dioxide: The world today produces more carbon dioxide than all the other greenhouse gasses combined. Geological records show that there are higher levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere today than there have been for 200,000 years. It takes 200 years to break down.

As a result of James Hansen’s speech the UN decided to set up an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and 2,500 top world scientists were selected to take part in this initiative. Seven years later the IPCC group reported that they had found a discernable human effect on the global climate. They recommended that the world should stop relying on fossil fuels.

The oil and coal industries fiercely opposed the findings of the IPCC. But the world’s governments took the IPCCs recommendations seriously enough to decide to meet in 1997 in Kyoto, Japan to discuss climate change and how to prevent it by reducing harmful emissions. IPCC scientists suggested that the world should aim to reduce greenhouse gasses by 60-70%, but world leaders eventually agreed on a 5.2% reduction, not sufficient to halt the greenhouse effect. The US has not ratified this treaty.

Today the consensus of the scientific community is that global warming is an indisputable fact. “The world”, said the American Association for the Advancement of Science at a Conference called The Reality of Global Warming, “is significantly warmer today than it was a century ago and it’s getting warmer. Without action now, the impact could be devastating”.

In many parts of the world climate change has already affected the environment. Glaciers have disappeared, sea levels have risen, drowning islands, and massive areas of the world have been affected by desertification. In China, for example, 1.7 million square km (18.2% of the mainland) is now classified as desert and this area is expanding by 3,464 square km per year. All these environmental disasters have been caused by the rise in temperature during the last twenty years.

The reason why we have been consuming the world’s fossil fuels at such an alarming rate is because the industrialised world has subsidised and supported them. The World Bank, which funds energy research, devotes 86% of their funding to fossil fuel research projects, while only 14% goes to renewable energy research projects. Yet renewable energy is abundant and will never run out, whereas fossil fuels are limited and will come to an end. Carbon is locked up in all life forms, especially in trees, which absorb huge amounts of carbon dioxide. When carbon is released as carbon dioxide, it traps the sun’s heat. Burning fossil fuels releases six billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year. Cutting down trees prevents them from absorbing carbon dioxide and producing oxygen. By the 1990s an area of tropical forest equivalent to nearly half the area of England was being destroyed each year. Since all forests, but especially tropical forests, absorb carbon dioxide, this forest destruction increases the rate of climate change. Corporate interests are now destroying the last remaining mature forests in the world.

As greenhouse gasses build up, the average world temperature rises. Since 1988 it has risen by 0.65 degrees. This seems like a very small rise in temperature, but it has not risen evenly throughout the world. There have been massive swings in temperature, with some of the coldest winters in parts of the world and some of the hottest summers in other parts, while the north and south poles have risen by 5 degrees, causing massive chunks of ice to break off and melt into the sea.

The IPCC scientists, and ecologists long before them, have been predicting that a rise in global temperature, together with the depletion of ozone levels in the stratosphere, would result in more unpredictable and violent weather. They have predicted more floods, hurricanes, more intense storms, dryer interiors of continents, hotter summers, winters that would sometimes be milder and sometimes more severe. And everything that they predicted is happening, but alarmingly, it is happening sooner and faster than expected.

They predicted species extinctions. These have already begun. Eighty percent of the world’s coral reefs have been bleached, alpine plants are disappearing and tropical fish are moving to the Mediterranean.

They predicted the spread of disease. Mosquitoes are moving to higher terrain, causing malaria in areas which were free from the disease before.

They predicted that Africa would suffer the most drought and desertification, and this is indeed happening, with resultant famine.

They predicted that islands would disappear under the rising sea. Several small islands have already disappeared.

They also predicted that as global temperatures rose, the world’s peat bogs would release their stored carbon dioxide. The bogs of Europe, Siberia and North America hold the equivalent of 70 years of global industrial emissions, so if global temperatures reach the point at which the frozen peat bogs of Siberia and North America thaw out and begin to release their carbon dioxide, the greenhouse effect will accelerate out of control. Alarmingly, scientists at the University of Wales have found that peat bogs in Wales are already releasing their carbon dioxide at an increased rate. This, they suspect, is due to the increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Climate change affects the poorest people in the poorest countries. 96% of all deaths from natural disasters happen in poor parts of the world, where people live crowded together in insecure houses, often built in vulnerable positions. 25 million refugees have fled from countries hit by environmental disasters.

Renewable energy could improve the lives of people in the third world immeasurably, providing clean, cheap fuel and preventing deforestation. But these people need to be provided with the technology that would allow them to benefit from renewable energy. IPCC scientists argue that the rich nations need to make poverty reduction a priority, since poor people are often forced into degrading their environment in order to survive. IPCC scientists recommend that the rich nations should supply renewable energy technology to the poor nations.

350 participants from 80 countries took the IPCC recommendations seriously, meeting together on June 3rd 2004 for an International Parliamentary Forum on Renewable Energy in Bonn. Dr Hermann Scheer, MP presented the conclusions of this forum at the International Conference for Renewable Energy, also held in Bonn on June the 9th 2004. He spoke of the urgency of the current world situation.

Renewable energy: sun, wind, wave, hydro and biogas, exists everywhere. It cannot be privatised. The cost of fossil fuels will rise and rise. Third world countries already struggle to pay their fossil fuel bill, and as costs rise they will be unable to do so. Where the infrastructure for the delivery of conventional power sources does not exist, it will be increasingly expensive to provide. Renewable energy is a realistic option to meet the energy needs of the third world and it should be developed and promoted by organisations such as the World Bank.

Hermann Scheer called for the formation of an International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA). This recommendation has not yet been adopted but the 350 representatives of 80 countries agreed to meet regularly and to collaborate on the development of renewable energy technologies worldwide.

Chancellor Schroeder emphasised that since 1990 Germany had reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by 19% and currently invests six billion euros per year in renewable energy technology development. 120,000 people are employed in the renewable energy industries in Germany today. “It is only when we are able to bring about a significant reduction in the cost of renewable energies that we will have improved opportunities to promote their use in poorer countries. Increasing their use will be a means of providing environmental security and protecting the lives of millions of peoples” he said.

In the rich, industrialised world we need to follow the lead of Chancellor Schroeder and increase funding of renewable energy projects massively, subsidise renewable energy technology and encourage withdrawal from fossil fuels, so that what is left can be used for the production of valuable products such as specialised plastics, computers etc. We need to promote the use of renewable energy in the third world and support the formation of an International Renewable Energy Agency. Each year the earth receives energy equivalent to a thousand trillion barrels of oil in the form of sunlight. Currently solar power is not perceived to be economical due to the cost of photovoltaic solar cells and due to their low efficiency. But a new technology, nanotechnology, has the potential to manufacture solar cells inexpensively, thus moving solar power into the mainstream.

Already in the third world a few renewable energy projects have begun. For example Tamil Nadu, in South India has the second biggest wind farm in the world. In Kenya more rural households get electricity from solar energy than from the national grid. In Vietnam farmers are producing biogas from farm waste. These are just a few examples of what could be done throughout the world.

If we do not switch to renewable energy sources – sun, wind, wave, geothermal and hydro, demand for fossil fuel will increase, in tandem with a decline in supplies, resulting in global economic chaos and an uncontrollable runaway greenhouse effect. Our world could be reduced to a hot, Venus-like desert within the lifetime of our grand children. We need to recognise that not only does the burning of fossil fuels damage the environment, but petroleum is too valuable as a starting material to be merely consumed as a fuel.

Image credit: Alll rights reserved by nagyistvan8, flicker creative commons