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.