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Progress Decarbonizes Energy
The little known secret of fossil fuels
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Energy is crucial to human civilization and progress. But in a world facing the growing threat of climate change, our usage of energy, particularly fossil fuels, has come under intense scrutiny. Generally unknown to the public, however, humanity was on its way to decarbonizing long before “climate change” entered the public lexicon. Instead of stifling progress to “save the environment,” we ought to let progress run its course and this could happen naturally.
The notion that some gases trap the Sun’s heat on Earth more effectively than others, known as the “greenhouse effect,” is by now well established in the public consciousness. The precise mechanism through which this happens, however, is not. When the Sun’s rays reflect off of the Earth’s surface, some of the energy is absorbed, but much reflects back as infrared waves. Simple molecules like Oxygen and Nitrogen, the primary components of our atmosphere, do not interact much with these infrared waves, allowing the energy to reradiate back into space.
Larger and more complex molecules, like Carbon Dioxide (CO2), which is comprised of three atoms instead of two, however, react to broader wavelengths of energy. CO2 absorbs energy at wavelengths between 2,000 and 15,000 nanometers; a range that includes infrared energy, in contrast to Oxygen and Nitrogen. Thus, CO2 absorbs this energy, vibrates, and re-emits it in all directions, warming the Earth. It is worth noting that while CO2 gets most of the attention, there are other, even more potent greenhouse gases, like Methane.
Life on Earth is Carbon-based, which itself is a natural probabilistic consequence of the characteristics of Carbon itself. Compared with the rest of the Periodic Table, Carbon readily bonds with itself and other elements, allowing the formation of complex molecules including DNA and proteins. This is because Carbon has 4 valance electrons and is uniquely able to form strong, yet pliable bonds with other elements; perfect for life which must maintain enough structure to counter entropy, but be adaptable enough to evolve, grow, and change.
Over billions of years, Carbon-based life has been absorbing energy from the nuclear activity of the Sun, either directly from sunlight or indirectly by consuming plants or animals that already contain Solar energy. When these life forms died, they took that chemically stored energy with them to the grave. Over millions of years, deposits of deceased life became covered with silt, compressed, and heated by the movement of the Earth, forming highly dense deposits of energy that we now call “fossil fuels.” It is a somewhat poetic irony that this energy is merely a highly impure but dense form of solar energy.
Human progress over the last five centuries was enabled, in crucial part, by the utilization of these fossil fuels. By burning the remnants of dead life to release its stored energy, we could do things that would be impossible otherwise. But the burning of fossil fuels has a side effect: it also releases that long-dormant carbon into the atmosphere. The growing concentrations of CO2 are, accordingly, trapping more of the Sun’s heat here on Earth, and altering the climate.
Progress Decarbonizes Energy
From the discussion above, one might reasonably interpret progress to be the root cause of our climate woes and indeed many do. The solution drawn by these individuals, therefore, is to advocate for a strategy of “degrowth.” They encourage fewer births, less development, less energy use, and reversing the material growth that humanity has enjoyed in the past centuries.
But this solution is little more than civilizational genocide and would make us all worse off. Progress is not the cause of the problem, it is the solution. Humanity has traversed through several energy revolutions in the last five centuries, each less carbon-intensive than the last. With each energy revolution that was swept through, we figured out how to provide more energy with fewer pollutants and fewer CO2 emissions.
Five centuries ago, our primary source of fuel was burning dry wood. According to Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker, dry wood has a ratio of combustible carbon-to-hydrogen of about 10 to 1.66, very high by any standard. In the next energy revolution, beginning in the 18th Century, coal rose to prominence. Coal drove the “First” Industrial Revolution, but coal’s carbon-to-hydrogen ratio is much lower, about 2 to 1.67.
Today, wood and coal use are in decline in much of the world. Largely because of petroleum, the leader of the third energy revolution, which powered the “Second” Industrial Revolution. Petroleum products have a lower carbon-to-hydrogen ratio still, 1 to 2. But even petroleum use could soon be peaking, in part, because we are in the midst of a fourth energy revolution, led by natural gas, which has an even lower ratio of 1 to 4.68.
As a practical matter, when we compare each fuel in terms of CO2 emitted per unit of energy, the impact is significant. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the various types of coal emit around 100 kilograms of CO2 Per Million Btu, while petroleum products emit around 70kg, and natural gas, just 50kg. In other words, with each step up the energy “ladder,” carbon emissions dropped about 30 percent for the same amount of energy generated.
We can see this impact on a global level, with many countries now having decoupled economic growth, as measured by GDP, from pollution and carbon emissions. As I noted here, some 32 nations are reducing CO2 emissions even as their populations and economies grow. An agenda of degrowth is not required to reduce our environmental impact. Instead, the evidence indicates a kind of environmental “Kuznets curve,” progress and growth actually reduce environmental destruction.
Stunting human progress risks entrenching and ensuring a hopeless dependence on fossil fuels that runs counter to the goals of environmentalism and being good stewards of life and the planet.
Growth Cures Many Ills
A key theme of Risk & Progress is that counter to what many believe or have been erroneously taught, progress is a cure for many ills. This does not, however, mean that we should not work to speed the process of decarbonization along. As I argued here, there is a sound and rational basis to impose a carbon tax on fossil fuels. This tax is not meant to punish but rather to internalize the negative externalities of their usage. It may make some sense to begin this carbon tax with coal, since coal usage is by far the most impactful on the environment.
At the same time, there is no good reason to not invest in new forms of energy. However, making alternatives viable requires continued technological and economic progress. Incremental breakthroughs in solar power, battery energy storage, more efficient airliners…etc, are occurring all the time. Each innovation is a small step forward toward a more sustainable energy future. Progress should not be hindered, but rather embraced.
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