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If Greta Had Her Way

Contributed by Robert Lyman © 2019.

Robert Lyman is an Ottawa energy policy consultant, former public servant, and diplomat. His full bio is here.

Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg usually gets a pass from the media in terms of never challenging her claims about the effects of human activity on global warming. No one seems to confront her over the adverse effects of the “strikes” that organizers lead, with her as the symbolic Joan of Arc waging war against the capitalists. Maybe, however, they would take some advice about what would actually happen if the countries of the world were to heed her calls for an end to the use of fossil fuels (coal, oil and natural gas) within the next ten years, if not sooner.

I have spent over 40 years studying, analyzing and advising on energy policy issues in Canada, so I think I can make a reasonable claim to knowing far more about the subject than a sixteen-year-old high school dropout. I acknowledge that I suffer from the bias of thinking that facts matter, and that hysteria about energy and environmental issues will ultimately not overcome common sense. So, let me present some facts that those listening to Greta might want to take into account.

First, fossil fuels now supply 84 % of the world’s energy needs, with nuclear energy and hydroelectricity supplying most of the rest. Renewable energy, which Greta favours, supplies only 4%, despite several decades of massive subsidies by governments. The share of energy supplied by fossil fuels varies considerably by country. In the poorer countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America, it typically supplies over 95% of people’s energy needs.

The prominence of fossil fuels in the energy mix is not an accident or the work of evil energy companies. Coal, oil and natural gas are plentiful, reliable and relatively inexpensive. Because of this, consumers and industry have been increasing their use of fossil fuels for over 150 years, and the patterns of consumption are embedded in the infrastructure: the roads, buildings, bridges, transit systems and vehicles that we all use. Oil, in particular, has four major advantages that make people want to use it – high energy density (the amount of energy per unit of mass), ease of transport, low cost and safety of storage. Because of these advantages, oil provides 97 % of the energy needs of transportation. Natural gas, while less dense and more expensive to store and transport, is clean-burning and versatile. It is also an ideal fuel for power generation, residential and commercial heating, and crop drying. Coal is more expensive to transport and burn cleanly, but coal resources are present in large quantities in over 40 countries. Coal is also cheap to produce; it still dominates in the supply of fuel for power generation.

It is, quite simply, impossible to end the use of these energy sources within ten years or even within 30 years. Nonetheless, let us for the sake of illustration examine what would happen if some world government were to decree that fossil fuel use must end immediately.

Almost all motorized transport would stop. The cars, trucks, buses, trains, marine vessels and aircraft would stop moving. People would not be able to go from place to place without walking, cycling, or riding horses, and there would not be enough horses. It would take months, not hours, to move long distances. The movement of goods would decline dramatically.

Consequently, companies would not be able to obtain the materials that they need to make things, and they would not be able to move the products they make to where people live. Most companies would have to close, putting millions of people out of work. Similarly, people would not be able to get to work if they lived more than a few miles away, so they would lose what jobs were left available.

Farmers would not be able to obtain the supplies, fertilizers or pesticides they need to plant their crops and they would not have modern farm machinery and tractors to do the work. Food production would drop sharply in all parts of the world, as agricultural practices went back to what they were at the end of the 19th century. As those practices could only support about 1.5 billion people, six billion people would starve.

Without natural gas and coal, there would be a shortage of electricity generation capacity and fuel for residential and commercial heating. Almost all parts of the world would experience blackouts and brownouts. This would make modern manufacturing impossible, so those industries would shut down. In the colder countries like Canada, the forest would be cut down to provide residential heating. But once the firewood supply is exhausted, millions of people would become sick and/or freeze in wintertime. There would no longer be any air-conditioning. The absence and/or unreliability of electricity would end the use of several modern conveniences like stoves, refrigerators, vacuum cleaners, radios, televisions, computers and cellular telephones.

The end of oil would also mean that the products made from oil would no longer be available, including petrochemical feedstocks. That would mean that no one could in future make things like rubber, plastic, roofing, paints, pens, synthetic clothing fibres, dyes, computers, CDs and DVDs, deodorants, eye glasses, telephones or detergents, to name only a few.

Because of the shortages of so many things, prices would rise significantly, even as incomes fell. People would not be able to get most of the goods and services on which they now depend. Older people would be most vulnerable. Hospitals would not be able to get many of the medications that they need nor be able conduct operations with the anesthetics now available. Many people would die as a result.

As these changes would take place overnight, or even within a year, they would pose enormous problems that governments would not be equipped to confront. The public in almost all countries would find these changes intolerable and would revolt against them. It is likely that in many areas there would be a breakdown of civil order, and chaos would result. If governments attempted to enforce the end of fossil fuels, they would have to do so by imposing dictatorships. It is unlikely that the countries of the world as now organized could survive such a transition.

Fortunately, it is unlikely that I would live long enough to see such a tragedy. Greta would, though.


  1. Andrew Roman

    This is an excellent post, but I would like to see another part to it. Greta and her supporters believe that what they say is needed to “save the planet” is actually feasible if only we were all less greedy, especially the capitalists, who only think about money.

    The proposed solution is “renewables”, which they understand to be solar panels and wind turbines. So if they are right, all of the dire circumstances in the above story is merely scaremongering. None of that would happen if we just started installing solar panels and wind turbines. What’s wrong with that?

  2. Robert Lyman

    Andrew, thank you for your comment. The short answer to your question as to why the world cannot just shift to wind and solar energy is that such a transition is almost as fanciful and unrealistic as immediately foregoing the use if fossil fuels. I and others have written numerous articles setting out the many barriers to and disadvantages associated with the increased use of wind and solar energy. There is a good one published in the FOS Facebook page today. Wind and solar now provide only 4% of the world’s primary energy consumption and it would, even under ideal economic and technology circumstances, take several decades before they could even reach 30%. Remember that they are mostly useful for electricity generation and certainly cannot replace oil and natural gas in their more direct applications. See, as one example of the parade of problems, this article:

  3. Warren

    The devil is in the details. A 16 year old girl under the influence of ideologues may be excused of not being aware of the details. There is no similar excuse for the main stream media whose “journalists” appear not to be capable of doing journalism.

  4. Catherine Ridley

    Excellent article, Robert. Factual and completely on point. Canadians need to understand that the Swedish child is a great harbinger of doom and gloom but really needs some serious fact checking.

  5. Greg Thoams Starke

    In order to produce the requisite Energy required to maintain the productivity, mobility, health, lifestyle and sustainability of Humanity as we know it today through the use of Solar and Wind as our only sources of Energy… vast blocks of land would need to be dedicated to harvest these “intermittent” sources of Energy using huge networks of Wind Farms and Solar Arrays with additional land resources dedicated to Battery Storage and Networks required when the production of Solar or Wind Farms were limited or non-existent!… Not a solution now or in the near to mid-future!…

  6. rdl66

    I feel sorry for Greta. From what I can see, she is an abused child – her parents and the people paying her parents are exploiting her. She, I believe, is unaware of how spiteful and uninformed she portrays herself as being. I believe that her bitter and negative attitude comes from having her childhood stolen…by her parents. Her dreams have been killed…by her parents. As annoying as she is, I believe that she needs to be removed from her parents and de-programmed. Her alleged mental health issues stem, I believe, from abusive parenting. She should be leading a normal life and not being exploited by her parents and their backers. And she is not a climate activist. She is not even an activist. She is a young person whose normal emotional, mental, and physical development has been arrested by her abusive parents.

  7. Meighan Colterjohn

    While calling for an end to the use of fossil fuels within 10 years may not be realistic, I think we need to recognize that there is a finite supply to fossil fuels and they do cause damage to our ecosystem, which may result in devastating climate change. So while we may not need or want to cut fossil fuel usage quite so drastically, we must continue to find other sources of energy and possibly to change the way we do things like commute, heat and cool, manufacture, etc. Greta is doing a pretty incredible job of forcing people to wake up and become more aware of the damage we continue to do to our planet, and what that may mean to future generations. Hopefully, her efforts will result in some positive change.

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