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Can We Ever Get Off Fossil Fuels?

Can We Ever Get Off Fossil Fuels? by Marc A. Cirigliano

As David Roberts has written over at Vox, "Low-carbon options for heavy industry like steel and cement are scarce and expensive."

"Truly defeating climate change will mean getting to net-zero carbon emissions and eventually negative emissions. That means decarbonizing everything. Every economic sector. Every use of fossil fuels," Roberts observes.

Roberts points out the details:

Heavy industry is responsible for around 22 percent of global CO2 emissions. Forty-two percent of that — about 10 percent of global emissions — comes from combustion to produce large amounts of high-temperature heat for industrial products like cement, steel, and petrochemicals.

He fiurther clarifies:

To put that in perspective, industrial heat’s 10 percent is greater than the CO2 emissions of all the world’s cars (6 percent) and planes (2 percent) combined. Yet, consider how much you hear about electric vehicles. Consider how much you hear about flying shame. Now consider how much you hear about ... industrial heat.

We at The Eastern Woodlands Fusion would like to point out that the products we use from the very high heat of the manufacturing process produced by fossil fuels are foundational. As Jernlontoret explains, steel products alone include:

  • Buildings: metal roofing, steel beams, reinforcing steel and mounting brackets.

  • Vehicles: private cars, trucks, trains and cycles.

  • Infrastructure: Bridges, steel safety barriers for roads, lighting and high voltage pylons, railings and railways.

  • Art and design: sculptures and jewellery.

  • Machines and tools: press tools, cylinder blocks, lathes, saws and drills.

  • Industry: rollers, pipes, machines, cranes, overhead cranes, rushers and drills.

  • Medicine: scalpels (lancets), hip implants, suture needles and surgical pins.

  • Everyday use: paper clips, scissors, kitchen sink units, radiators, cutlery, saucepans emergency stairways, domestic appliances, sporting equipment and computers.

Roberts writes on other sources of energy, "alternatives can be broken down into five basic categories:

  1. Biomass: Either biodiesel or woodchips can be combusted directly.
  2. Electricity: “Resistive” electricity can be used to, say, power an electric arc furnace.
  3. Hydrogen: This is technically a subcategory of electricity, since it is derived from processes powered by electricity; it is produced through steam reforming of methane (SMR) to make carbon-intensive “grey” hydrogen, SMR with carbon capture and storage to make “blue” hydrogen, or electrolysis, pulling hydrogen directly out of water, to make low-carbon “green” hydrogen.
  4. Nuclear: Nuclear power plants, either conventional reactors or new third-generation reactors, give off heat that can be carried as steam.
  5. Carbon capture and storage (CCS): Rather than decarbonizing the processes themselves, their CO2 emissions could be captured and buried, either the CO2 directly from the heat source (“heat CCS”) or the CO2 from the entire facility (“full facility CCS”).

Each of these is expensive. CCS is a feasible short term solution: pull the energy out of the air and store it, Roberts argues.

But, he offers"The only technology solution with a potential path down the cost curve to the point of being competitive with (properly priced) fossil fuels is electrification."

Clean, green electricity, then, Roberts contends, is one very possible future goal.

Bravo!

It is wonderful to see someone advancing long-term policy goals to begin to solve global climate change.

However, as I wrote in on of The Eastern Woodlands foundation articles, Footprints in the Forest, fossil fuels are weaved into and support the very fabric of our modern lifestyle. As such, fossil fuels industries have tremendous political power, too.

Here's an excerpt from the article.

... from Footprints in the Forest ...

Next, here we have pie chart of energy use in the United States by the Energy Information Administration, again, with an accompanying article

Energy_consumption_by_source_large

If you study these two charts, you can see that the problems we face are directly structured into our lifestyle and are the major drivers of our economy.

This is not to say that some progress has not been made in addressing environmental issues. As the National Geographic notes, there have been forty-nine major environmental victories since the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970. (Fifty if you count the Wilderness Act of 1964.) Among these have been: National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (in effect in 1970), Federal Environmental Pesticide Control Act (1972), Clean Water Act (1972), Endangered Species Act (1973), Get the Lead Out of Gas (beginning in 1974 to completion in 1995), Rio Earth Summit (1992) and many others.

Moreover, there has been somewhat of a global effort to transition energy from fossil fuels to renewables.

Yet, progress has been in small steps. Since Earth Day in 1970, the global population of 3.75 billion has doubled to 7.7. Global greenhouse gas emissions have more than doubled, according the EPA:

Fossil_fuels_1

What puts us in the middle of an environmental dilemma—the wonderful modern lifestyle with its food, shelter, medicine, travel and education—is that this lifestyle comes at a heavy, destructive environmental cost with pollution, climate change, rising sea levels and an increase in droughts that affect both populations and agriculture.

So, although there have been a large number of environmental victories over the past five decades, major ecological factors have continued to worsen. And, the lobbying efforts of the corporate status quo vastly outspend their environmental counterparts by upwards of ten to one, as we can see in this pie chart:

ClimateLobbying_PieChart_BrulleClimaticChange_web

The anti-environmental trend has reached a fever pitch with the current Trump Administration where we have seen over 80 environmental rules rolled back. As the New York Times reports:

President Trump has made eliminating federal regulations a priority. His administration, with help from Republicans in Congress, has often targeted environmental rules it sees as burdensome to the fossil fuel industry and other big businesses.

What increases the effect of such anti-environmental lobbying and direct anti-environmental policy making on a global scale is the fact that, as Global Witness has exposed, environmental activists are killed overseas at the rate of three per week.

This stifling of discussion on environmental policies is an unfolding human tragedy.

The shift from fossil fuels is beyond monumental in scope. None of us can conceive of what a gargantuan project this is. The shift from producing waste and pollution as we live our modern, comfortable lifestyle is equally difficult. The task of reining in population growth is of the same magnitude. Accomplishing these changes as we provide a modern lifestyle to people through a sound economy may be impossible.

The goal of The Eastern Woodlands Fusion is to advocate for environmental change through informing our readers, asking them to support political candidates who themselves advocate sound environmental policies that will result in tangible changes and engage fellow citizens in conversations about our environmental problems.

 

Post Script:

Note that David Roberts provides some genuine depth by citing and summarizing the work of Julio Friedmann, Roberts writes:

Some light has been cast into this blind spot with the release of two new reports by Julio Friedmann, a researcher at the Center for Global Energy Policy (CGEP) at Columbia University (among many items on a long résumé).

The first report, co-authored with CGEP’s Zhiyuan Fan and Ke Tang, is about the current state of industrial heat technology: “Low-Carbon Heat Solutions for Heavy Industry: Sources, Options, and Costs Today.”

The second, co-authored with a group of scholars for the Innovation for Cool Earth Forum (ICEF), is a roadmap for decarbonizing industrial heat, including a set of policy recommendations.

 

 

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