Issue No5: The World Needs to Quickly Stop Using Fossil Fuels….Not So Fast!

Authors Note: to view the charts, read this article on a large screen if possible.

This is my final article in this series about the issues involved in transitioning off fossil fuels. I went into this fully knowing that the shift was going to be very difficult but discovered that I massively underestimated the challenges.

I’m going to summarize key findings that might surprise you and finish by providing you with a view of the future mix of energy sources as we generationally reduce the global role of fossil fuels.

I stated in Issue No1 that the term “climate change” is a silly oxymoron. The earth’s climate is always changing. Since its creation, the earth cycles between hot and cold periods on its own. Who or what is causing it has nothing to with this series.

Americans tend to view fossil fuel issues through our own prism and assume that they’re globally understood the same way. That’s an extremely flawed supposition. Here are few examples:

Coal

As I discussed in Issue No2, American readers would assume the global use of coal to be like the US, where it’s overwhelmingly used in generating electricity and quickly losing market share primarily to natural gas, another fossil fuel. The first chart shows coal’s dominant role in China and this forecast shows that roughly, as a percentage, half of their electrical generation will continue to originate from coal in 2040, which is down from 72% in 2015. However, on a unit’s generated basis, their coal usage will have barely changed. And, they continue to build coal burning plants.

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration

The next 2020 chart illustrates the heavy coal dependency for generating electricity in a variety of heavily populated countries This is how the most populated countries ranked by the United Nations Population Division in 2022 including China (#1), India (#2), Indonesia (#4), South Africa (#25) and Poland (#38). Roughly 36% of the world’s population live in China and India.

For rural, low-income economies, coal represents an easy to transport, cheap and low-cost energy solution using already installed infrastructure.

These charts speak for themselves and should make any realistic person question the myth that the planet is going to be free of coal usage anytime soon. We’re talking many generations. And most of the decline in coal usage is directly a result of the substitution of natural gas.

Turbines

Also in Issue No2, I discovered that the mechanical “guts” of virtually every renewable energy source including wind, hydroelectric, geothermal, biomass and tidal all require synthetic oil-based products to operate, and it needs to be replaced at least annually. Oil based products are also required to build the blades for both wind and tidal energy products. Turbines require oil.

Plastic

In Issue No3, I explored both the growth trend and indispensable product applications that are 100% reliant on petroleum-based products. Plastic is the material of choice for so many applications because of its high versatility, lightweight and durability. It has become deeply entrenched in many large global industries including aerospace, construction, electrical and electronic applications, communications equipment, packaging, energy generation (solar panels, wind turbines), furniture, marine (virtually all recreational hulls are plastic-based), medical and healthcare, apparel, toys, entertainment products, military equipment, and automotive. According to Oilprice.com, plastics production accounts for about 4 percent of total global oil production in 2019. For advanced economies like the US, the percentage is likely double that amount. This chart illustrates the applications and global production growth.

I didn’t find a single long-range forecast that didn’t describe anything but an insatiable demand for more, more and more plastic production. Issue No3 provides more details, but you can’t make plastic without producing oil.

As a side point, IMHO most environmentalists present an unbalanced narrative about plastic versus correctly targeting their real issue, disposable plastic products. They fail to acknowledge the infinite number of beneficial durable plastic products that are used in all of our daily routines. They have conditioned the populace to think that plastics are a systemic problem. Rather, they should present a more balanced affirmation about plastics positive current and future role in durable applications. Clearly, plastic can’t be marginalized as a replaceable material anytime soon. Plastic is 100% dependent on oil and natural gas.

Tires

They are obviously required in the automotive and aviation industries and many other industrial machine applications. Tire technology is very complex because of the inherent safety and performance requirements needed in each of the distinct user markets, as well as climate variations in different global regions. In Issue No3, I explained that crude oil is the principal raw material in synthetic rubber. Approximately 70% of all rubber used today is synthetic. According to the Rubber Manufacturers Association, roughly 7 gallons of oil is required to make each tire. Roughly 2.7 billion tires will be produced in 2022, requiring roughly 300 million barrels of oil. Unit tire volume is forecasted to continue growing at roughly 3–4% annually. No crude oil, no tires.

Concrete

This ubiquitous material surprisingly produces roughly 8% of all global carbon emissions due to the result of the very energy-intensive production process, which I address in Issue No4. Public awareness of the role of concrete in CO2 emissions is very low because it is generally lumped into the broad “industrial sector” and not broken out separately. According to a 2020 McKinsey & Company industry report, “The cement industry alone is responsible for about a quarter of all industry CO2 emissions, and it also generates the most CO2 emissions per dollar of revenue”.

Additionally, the Center for International Climate Research in Oslo, Norway states that “global cement production has increased more than 30-fold since 1950 and almost 4-fold since 1990, with much more rapid growth than global fossil energy production in the last 2 decades. Since 1990 this growth is largely attributed to the rapid development in China where cement production has grown by a factor of almost 12 such that 73 % of global growth in cement production since 1990 occurred in China”. Again, China is by far the number one producer of both cement and emissions. Like these other examples, the consensus of all long-term forecasts I’ve reviewed for this series are calling for a high and continuing growth.

Like plastic, concrete can’t be marginalized as a replaceable material and the required scale of both industries is without exaggeration in a word, massive.

Aviation Fuel

Here’s a U.S. Energy Information Administration 2020 forecast for emissions reductions in the transportation sector by fuel application, which illustrates a dramatic improvement of roughly 85% between 2020 and 2070. During this same time, the global population is estimated to increase roughly 20% from 7.9 billion to 9.4 billion. So, on per capita basis, if this forecast is close to being correct is a very impressive reduction.

You’ll note the lone non-participant in significant emissions progress in this forecast is the aviation fuel sector. It’s a bit misleading because the industry has made great strides in reducing emissions through the replacement of older less fuel-efficient equipment and replacing it with the opposite.

Aviation fuel can’t be replaced by any known energy source that possesses the required performance characteristics. And any replacement needs to be compatible with the existing equipment. If changes are required, the airline industry can’t safely re-invent its equipment on a dime. Their typical lead time for ordering new planes is 5–7 years. The production and certification process would be an enormous challenge. Then there’s the global passenger load forecast by the International Civil Aviation Organization which projects that 10 billion passengers will be flying in 2040 compared to pre-COVID 2018 number of 4.3 billion. If you want to fly, you need oil.

Nuclear Energy

Today there are about 440 nuclear power reactors operating in 32 countries, generating about 10% of the world’s electricity.

In Issue No2, I briefly touched on the industries obvious Achilles heel, the safe storage of nuclear waste and pointed out that there are solutions. It’s little understood that only 4% of the energy value is consumed from “spent” nuclear waste. In France, the world’s most nuclear dependent country in the world, through recycling, up to 96% of the reusable material in spent fuel can be recovered and recycled.

France, whose 58 reactors generate 70 percent of its electricity, has safely recycled nuclear fuel for decades.

They turned to nuclear power in the 1970s to smartly limit their dependence on foreign energy. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, the nuclear fuel recycling process involves converting spent plutonium, formed in nuclear power reactors as a by-product of burning uranium fuel, and uranium into a “mixed oxide” (MOX) that can be reused in nuclear power plants to produce more electricity.

The Orano La Hague reprocessing facility. More than 34,000 metric tons of used fuel has been treated here since the site’s operation in 1976. (Photo: Orano)

“The recycling of spent fuel is a major element of the strategy of the French nuclear sector, which has more than 30 years of industrial experience,”

says Denis Lépée, Senior Vice President and Head of the Nuclear Fuel Division at EDF, the French electric utility company that operates the country’s nuclear power plants. China and Russia recycle nuclear waste as well. In early 2022 it was reported that over the next 15 years, China has claimed to be investing $440 billion in nuclear infrastructure development. Because once you solve the nuclear waste problem, anything is possible.

Most Americans are probably under the impression that this industry dying, which is not the case. As of January 2022, there are 55 reactors under construction in 19 countries. About 100 power reactors are on order or planned, and over 300 more are proposed. This is the cleanest and most dependable 24/7 energy source available in the world. No renewable energy source can challenge this claim. Repositories, constructed to store the large quantities of non-recycled nuclear waste are probably an outdated idea.

As an aside, the US Navy has 83 nuclear powered ships including 72 submarines and 10 aircraft carriers. They launched their first nuclear powered ship in 1961, 60 years ago, and have had no events.

Nuclear Fusion

This futuristic energy source involves fusing atoms versus today’s nuclear fission process that splits atoms. It is positioned as only a potential electric power generator, which accounts for under 40% of our total energy needs. So, it’s no cure-all. According to UK Environmental Analyst Roger Harrabin the recent February 2022 fusion announcement “is great news but sadly it won’t help in our battle to lessen the effects of climate change”. He goes on to say “there’s huge uncertainty about when fusion power will be ready for commercialization. One estimate suggests maybe 20 years. Then fusion would need to scale up, which would mean a delay of perhaps another few decades”. In the words of his colleague Jon Amos:

“Fusion is not a solution to get us to 2050 net zero. This is a possible solution to power society in the second half of this century.”

Moving Forward

Coincidently, when I first began to publish this series, the Russian invasion of Ukraine occurred and quickly made the world aware of its dependency of oil/natural gas and the lack of a reality-based strategy regarding the reduction of fossil fuels. Here’s what’s clear — politicians (in many countries) are either ignorant of the facts I’ve presented or willing to outright lie to gain the support of naïve voters. And as is usual, at least in America, the mainstream media has climbed aboard to amplify their messaging. Politicians are and always will be the bane of long-term planning, but unfortunately, they’re firmly positioned in the driver’s seat.

If you’ve read most or all that I have written, you should agree that pulling the plug on oil and natural gas prematurely is extremely dangerous until a real long-term plan is in place. Rather than demonize the industry, we should recognize our need to co-exist and work with them to reduce their CO2 emissions and include them in the gradual reduction without crippling our economy. Irreplaceable products like tires, plastics, concrete, unique fuels for the automotive, aviation and heavy machinery industries, the lubrication required for turbines that are the guts of most renewable industries are oil/natural gas based. The massive shift away from coal is only occurring because of the abundant availability of natural gas.

As I presented in Issue No2, we also should expand our nuclear energy footprint like many other countries are currently doing. In America, the very high costs and stretched out construction timelines are the result of government obstacles designed to further marginalize this industry. It is the #1 cleanest and most dependable 24/7 energy source. Recycling nuclear waste has a 30-year successful history outside of the US. America, open your eyes!

Likewise, as I presented in Issue No2, hydroelectric energy is both clean and 24/7 dependable and should be expanded wherever it’s needed. In America, we have almost a 100-year successful record of using this energy source.

As I’ve clearly presented in Issue No2, almost all renewables are oil dependent, and most are not close to 24/7 dependable.

And, as I exposed in Issue No3, all electric vehicles (EV’s) are very dependent on oil-based products including the tires and all of the exterior and interior plastic content. EV’s are also very dependent on government support in the form of tax credits and the subsidizing of building out charging stations. So, government is indirectly supporting the oil/gas business while demonizing it to the uninformed populace at the same time. Brilliant!

In Issue No2, I addressed the global coal industry and, while the US has dramatically reduced its usage, most of the rest of very populated and poorer countries are forecasted to remain very dependent for generations.

In Issue No4, I demonstrated the many flaws associated with ESG Funds. These are investment funds packaged with companies that are somewhat subjectively chosen for their responsible behavior regarding the Environment, Social issues, and their corporate Governance. I’m not declaring ESG a bad idea, but I did show examples of its undeniable contradictions. One easy example is cobalt, a key component of lithium-ion batteries in all EV’s. It is concentrated in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where the practice of modern slavery is estimated to be among the highest in the world. How is this acceptable social behavior? And, how about EV’s irrefutable dependency on oil-based products? How is that good for the environment? Increasingly, government is requiring investment institutions to focus their attention to ESG funds at the expense of higher potential returns elsewhere. Google “Illinois Sustainable Investing Act”. This state is uninvestable because of it’s embarrassing 40-year financial track record. But the politicians can’t get enough stupid juice and the naïve taxpayer pays for it.

Final Words

I’ve attempted to condense my research findings and opinions as much as possible. However, this is a very complex subject and certainly too important than to trade-off word count for needed content.

We need to establish a sequential plan that methodically identifies near-term next steps and avoids counterproductive and costly missteps. Accelerating the replacement of natural gas for coal is a perfect example of a proper use of a steppingstone approach to impact on carbon emissions.

Long-term planning is clearly no place for currently seated politicians. I can’t emphasize this point too strongly.

They’re always going to be beholding to swarms of lobbyists, uninformed taxpayers and they crave softball media coverage on subjects the media is self-promoting, versus covering.

Rather, create a bipartisan commission of scientists/university professors with relevant credentials, energy producers, a public relations company and retired politicians to objectively take over the responsibility of leading this process. Just an idea.

Thanks for reading my article. If you enjoyed it, please click on the clapping hands below. If you’d like to sign up to become a regular member, it will cost you only $5 per month and provides unlimited access to all the content on Medium. Here’s a link for you to sign up: https://medium.com/@ric62551/membership

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A curious retired American interested in both understanding & writing about meaningful issues. Email @ ric62551@gmail.com. Join in at https://medium.com/@ric625

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Rick Margin

Rick Margin

A curious retired American interested in both understanding & writing about meaningful issues. Email @ ric62551@gmail.com. Join in at https://medium.com/@ric625

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