“Fossil fuels are not finished”

Matt Ridley (The Rational Optimist) has a strong new article on his blog, in full. “Fossil fuels are not finished, not obsolete, not a bad thing” was previously behind paywalls at the Wall Street Journal and Sunday Times (UK).

I’ve taken some of the figures he gives for world power production in the article, and supplemented them for a fuller picture:

Nuclear: 4%, with massive subsidy (Ridley)
Wind: 1%, with massive subsidy. (Ridley)
Solar: less than 1%. (Ridley)
Geothermal: 0.3%, unproven beyond the city scale.
Bioenergy from crops: maybe 1%, and an ecological and ethical disaster.
Tidal: 0.002%, vanishingly small.
Hydroelectric: Very nice if you have the mountains or vast rivers for it: Norway, 96%, Brazil 80%, Canada 62%, New Zealand 51% according to the World Bank table. But it’s not a global solution for the rest of us. Even vast and heavily dammed China can’t squeeze more than about 22% from it, and that’s if you believe their often-fiddled regional government output statistics.

There are, of course, arguments that the legacy pollution from fossil fuel production and use is not fully factored into their cost. Ridley doesn’t address these arguments, although to be fair they probably require another complete article. I’m no expert but I do wonder if the very heavy taxation of fossil fuels means there has effectively been a “consumer pays for environment restoration” for the pollution of the 1920s-1980s era. I also wonder if the claims on un-costed legacy pollution assume that pollution clean-up costs will be on the same scale of those in the 1970s and 80s. When actually, in the developed post-industrial world, fossil fuel use is now vastly greener and cleaner at all sorts of levels, and enforced by industry practices, legal regulation and public demand. There may still be uncovered future-legacy clean-up costs for the years 2020-2050 in developed countries, and I’d welcome seeing strong figures on that. But again I’d assume that high taxation level of fossil fuels must cover much of these hidden costs. I’d also assume that fossil fuel companies must be factoring their own near-future rectification costs into the consumer price, simply as good modern business practice.

One can, of course, point to the dreadful and very photogenic smogs of China and India. But these countries will rapidly transition away from coal-fired power plants and old dirty cars made under socialism. Just as the UK did from the 1950s to the 1980s. And probably sooner rather than later, as government will for drastic measures hardens under public pressure. I’d also note that environmental pressure groups in China and India also have many more tools and public support at their disposal than the likes of Friends of the Earth did in Britain in 1980, and that such nations can draw on the west’s proven technology solutions at a much lower cost that we had to bear in developing them.

As China and India fix their chronic air pollution problems, possibly quite rapidly, there may even be beneficial effects following on for Africa. Both China and India are increasingly involved in Africa, and they may be able to profitably export affordable air pollution solutions to developing African cities.

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