Double Standards for Fossil Fuels
By: Chandu Visweswariah
The fossil fuel industry has defiantly projected that we will need their products till the end of this century or beyond. They are wrong. And if there’s any chance we will burn fossil fuels for another eight decades, God help our children, grandchildren and generations to come who will inhabit the planet at the turn of the century and beyond.
Today, the fossil fuel industry is being propped up by notions that are rife with troubling double standards. It is very important that we understand and speak up about these persistent, ubiquitous, pervasive, deep-rooted, stubborn and ingrained attitudes because they are impeding urgently needed changes in our political and economic systems. Here are eight clear double standards for your consideration.
- Let’s start with subsidies. The International Monetary Fund published a study entitled “How Large are Global Energy Subsidies” by David Coady, Ian Parry, Louis Sears and Baoping Shang. The shocking result is that worldwide subsidies for the fossil fuel industry totaled $4.9 trillion in 2014 when the paper was published and were projected to be $5.3 trillion in 2015. If that number is too large to comprehend, consider this: it works out to $10 million per minute, every minute of every day. The double standard here is that there is a widely held notion, enthusiastically encouraged by the fossil fuel industry, that transforming our economy to clean energy will be expensive and will be harmful to the economy, but they conveniently fail to acknowledge this public money gifted to them.
Dear fossil fuel industry, you are the beneficiary of the most massive subsidies in the history of the world. Given how harmful your product is, we need to rapidly take away your subsidies and give them to the renewable energy industry. This economic transformation will create healthy jobs and constructive economic opportunities on a vast scale. Once the gift of $5 trillion of annual taxpayer money that you are receiving is taken away, and the cost of your products increase concomitantly, we can then debate the cost of the renewable transformation and what it will do to the global economy.
- Let’s move on to health. Extracting, processing, transmitting and especially burning fossil fuels emit particulate emissions that are harmful to human health, causing a variety of diseases including emphysema, asthma, cardiovascular disease and cancers. Urban centers have unhealthy air quality (particularly high levels of PM2.5 which is Particulate Matter under 2.5 microns in diameter). Westchester County, New York, where I live, is a Federal Clean Air Quality non-attainment zone. Further, burning fuel oil in a furnace in the basement of your home or using gas for cooking causes poor indoor air quality. Children are harmed cognitively and otherwise by riding in diesel and gas school buses. The healthcare savings from eliminating all this particulate emission runs into the trillions of dollars annually. Surely, we are wise enough to take into consideration this “externality” when we weigh the cost of switching to clean energy.
Dear fossil fuel industry, you are responsible for ill health and untold early deaths on a global scale. You are using our subsidies to sell a product back to us that causes irreparable harm not only to the planet, but to its inhabitants, while you rack up huge profits. We suggest that you publish a warning just like the health warnings on cigarettes – every gallon of cheap gas you sell should come with a “health cost” and “environmental cost” to society, to say nothing of a “subsidy cost.” And then let’s compare the before-and-after cost of switching to renewable energy. Discuss amongst yourselves.
3. The United States is the largest producer of oil and gas in the world. The United States is the largest historical emitter of greenhouse gases (see graphic below from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Assessment Report 6 (AR6) Synthesis Report). The United States has one of the largest per-capita emissions in the world, standing at about 17 tons of CO2e per year, compared to the global average of about 6 tons of CO2e per year. Yet we often hear the statement that unless China and India reduce emissions, our efforts are useless.
Dear U.S. fossil fuel industry, you have the dubious honor of being the largest producer of oil and gas in the world, the United States is the largest historical emitter in the world, and one of the largest per-capita emitters in the world. Our sins are causing untold harm in countries that have done nothing to deserve it and are least equipped to deal with it. Why don’t we first get ourselves to the global average of 6 tons per person before we pass judgment on other countries?
- Mankind extracts 68 billion tons of material from the earth every year – ores, minerals, oil, gas, etc. (see lead graphic above, courtesy of Tesla). Of this total, 18 billion tons are related to the extraction of oil and gas, shown as gray trucks in the image. Everything else – iron, copper, lithium, cadmium, nickel, etc. – adds up to 50 billion tons. In a sustainable economy, the 18 billion tons of oil and gas extraction will be replaced by 4 billion tons (shown in green) of extraction of materials required for the new energy economy (mostly batteries) – thereby reducing extraction from 68 billion tons to 54 billion tons per year. The amount of lithium required for an average electric vehicle is reducing as scientists make lithium-ion batteries with higher energy densities. Various techniques for recycling or upcycling end-of-life batteries are being deployed by startups. And lithium is actually a widely available material in the earth’s crust, you don’t have to drill down (or laterally) for several miles to obtain it.
Dear fossil fuel industry, you cause 4.5 times the “extractive harm” of a sustainable economy. Your product is not recyclable and causes harm at every step of its life cycle. How about we challenge you to reduce your extraction by 4.5x before whining about how lithium extraction is harmful?
- One of the issues holding up the scale-up of renewable energy is the permitting process. There is strong resistance and arguments that solar and wind farms are unsightly and harmful to ecosystems. Nobody wants transmission lines built in or around their communities, while they are quite comfortable with such projects in other locations. With the war in Ukraine, the European Union is starting to fast-track clean energy permits to hasten energy security, but permits are still a big problem in the U.S. I had a front-row seat at a permit tussle on a smaller scale in my own village of Croton on Hudson, NY, where a solar developer recently proposed a solar farm on our local golf course. (No disrespect to golfers, but as far as I’m concerned, we’ve already removed trees to make golf courses, we may as well use all of them for solar farms instead.) It was a highly carbon negative project but was shot down in a process involving passionate opposition from neighbors, but without meaningful discussion about the environmental tradeoffs and without quantification of the carbon reduction.
Dear permit officials, as explained by climate scientists, we need “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented” actions in “all aspects of society” and we request you not to give renewable projects a harder time than fossil fuel projects had in the last 150 years. We also request you to consider a carbon and health analysis before every permit decision.
- Recently, there’s been a lot of discussion about the ethics of geo-engineering. Examples of geo-engineering are scattering lava ash or aerosols or other substitute particles in the upper atmosphere, and using mirrors in space to partially turn away light from the sun. If successful, these techniques will buy us some much-needed time while avoiding overshoot above 1.5oC of warming. The opposition is similar to what we heard when genetically modified crops were proposed: this is too dangerous, we don’t know what the outcome may be, this raises ethical questions. However, now we are largely feeding 8 billion humans due to such innovations.
Dear fossil fuel industry, our use of fossil fuels for the last 150 years has been one massive geo-engineering experiment whereby we extracted materials that have been in the earth for millions of years, transported them across vast distances and burned them, and created a greenhouse gas shield around the earth. For 90 of those 150 years, we didn’t even fully understand the consequences. This time around, let’s encourage innovation, but do it with a more scientific and knowledgeable stance, with appropriate governance in place, and full transparency. You cannot say no to geo-engineering when your own product is a form of geo-engineering. No geo-engineering means no burning of fossil fuels!
- Ever heard of gas explosions (Yonkers, San Bruno)? Ever heard of oil spills (Exxon Valdez, Deepwater Horizon)? Ever heard of super methane leaks (Aliso Canyon, Nord Stream pipeline) that caused enormous environmental damage? Did you know that leakage of unburned methane (the main ingredient of natural gas) causes 81 times the heat-trapping damage as CO2 molecule-for-molecule over a 20-year period?
Dear fossil fuel industry, your products are hazardous, dangerous for the planet and injurious to health. I’d much rather have a “solar spill” or “wind leak” any day!
- There are many scientists toiling away to help us understand climate change better. There are many engineers and entrepreneurs trying to figure out how we will run a grid powered by intermittent clean energy from the wind and the sun, with a new pattern of demand for heat pumps and electric vehicles. These are solution leaders who have the highest integrity and deserve our respect. Instead, they are accused of exaggerating climate impacts or endangering the grid by making it more susceptible to outages.
Dear fossil fuel industry, you have known the climate harm from your products for over 60 years as evinced by your own internal reports. You have chosen to hide this information from the public, and instead engaged in a campaign of fear, uncertainty and doubt. You have prioritized profits over public good time and time again. This behavior has fatally eroded your integrity and credibility. Corporate restructuring, subsidiaries owning other subsidiaries, rebranding, greenwashing and small renewable investments are unlikely to repair this situation.
And finally, to wrap up:
Dear fossil fuel industry, your product is dirty, dangerous, causes planetary damage and harms our health. Your product is inefficient (EVs are 3 to 4 times more efficient than their internal combustion counterparts, heat pumps are 3.5 to 4 times more efficient than furnaces, etc.) Fossil fuels are used to transport fossil fuels, making the overall efficiency even lower. All we ask is that the alternative be given a level playing field with no double standards, and that renewable energy is shown the same rapid approval when it comes to permits or subsidies or variances as those you’ve enjoyed over the last 150 years.