During his formative years, the legendary 20th-century American journalist Walter Lippman spent a lot of time with revolutionaries, radical intellectuals and others with a weak grip on reality.
But Lippman soon grew tired of “dilettante rebels, he who would rather dream 10 dreams than realise one; he who so often mistakes a discussion in a cafe for an artistic movement, or a committee meeting for a social revolution”. It was, he complained, “a form of lazy thoughtlessness to suppose that something can be made of nothing; that the act of creation consists of breathing upon the void”.
It is a description that is apt for activists, the Greens and related vested interests who argue blithely that fossil fuels can and should be phased out in the next few decades. No thought of the practicality of the goal or consideration of the consequences. No evidence is presented on whether such a transition is possible, or at what cost, including to the world’s poorest people. Nothing is allowed to interrupt the addiction to the pleasures of intellectual condescension.
Certainly no reference is made to the lessons of recent history. Between 1990 and 2010, 1.7 billion people secured access to electricity for the first time. More than 1.27 billion people secured access to electricity powered by fossil fuels. By comparison, 65 million people secured access to electricity for the first time from renewable energy sources. Put another way, 19 gained access to energy from fossil fuels for every one person who secured access via renewable energy sources.
Now let’s consider the plausibility of the challenge. Within a generation, can non-fossil fuel sources provide reliable, affordable electricity to 1.3 billion people who have no access to energy and another two billion people who have only limited access, while also replacing the 82 per cent of global primary energy that is currently supplied by fossil fuels?
According to the International Energy Agency, non-fossil-fuel energy sources (nuclear, hydro and other renewables) accounted for 18 per cent of energy in 2013. Let’s test this proposition using the IEA’s most aggressive emissions reduction scenario, consistent with the goal of limiting the global increase in temperature to 2C. Even under this scenario, fossil fuels will still provide 59 per cent of primary energy in 2040.
In short, if campaigners get their wish and fossil fuels are phased out by 2040, the world will face an energy gap of at least 9.2 billion tonnes of oil equivalent. That is the equivalent of 147 countries with no energy.
To illustrate, an energy gap like that would mean that the 56 nations of Africa, the 44 nations of Latin America, the 12 nations of the Middle East and 35 nations in Asia, including China, would have to exist without energy.
It would be a neo-medieval existence for most of the world’s population — much lower life expectancy and much higher levels of infant mortality, poverty and abject misery.
If nuclear and hydropower are off limits — the Greens are hostile to both — the situation is even worse. You can add the US and Japan to the list of 147 countries with no access to energy.
It is a point that demonstrates the farcical nature of the anti-fossil-fuel movement’s central proposition.
But why can’t renewables fill the gap? Independent analysis has shown that replacing existing fossil fuel-powered electricity with solar power by 2030 would take 470 years at the current rate of deployment. To do so with wind energy would take 270 years and require 3,460,000 wind turbines. (Incidentally that would be good news for the coal sector — every offshore wind turbine uses 250 tonnes of coking coal in its manufacture.)
What’s more, back-up power storage would be necessary for when the sun didn’t shine and the wind didn’t blow. That would mean 4600 new hydro projects — 13 times the number of large dams operating globally today.
The simple reality is that fossil fuels will continue to be indispensable if the world is to meet rapidly growing energy demand.
The good news is that continued fossil fuel use and lower emissions are not mutually exclusive. In addition to good progress on carbon capture and storage, conventional technologies are slashing carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired generation by as much as 50 per cent.
The bottom line is that all energy sources will be needed. To pretend otherwise is to substitute an ideological prejudice for empirical evidence. In Lippman’s words, it is simply “breathing upon the void”.
Brendan Pearson is chief executive of the Minerals Council of Australia.