Those of you who read my previous column will know this is my second time talking about this subject in as many issues. I don’t apologize for this. Climate change, social inequality and outer space are the signature issues of our time and therefore subjects which deserve to be at the forefront of our thinking and public discourse. Last issue, I lamented the lack of appreciation for what a hydrocarbon world has helped society accomplish, the lack of understanding for the extent to which the world is currently dependent on its use and the perception dramatic changes could be made on this dependence in the short term. Let me pursue this latter point a bit more as a segue to discussing the art of the possible.
We are guilty, as a global society, of doing dumb things. And we are hypocritical in our approach to this hugely important subject. In the aftermath of the Fukujima nuclear accident in Japan (an accident caused by human stupidity, not technology failure), Germany—a country that wants to be celebrated for its green agenda—banned the further development of nuclear energy and sunset its use in their power grid. The immediate effect of this was an increase in the consumption of coal in their generating plants. They banned a carbon-neutral source of energy to increase their use of one that’s directly responsible for much of the current nasty stuff we are emitting into the atmosphere.
There are a lot of people who believe the use or consumption of coal is decreasing—that’s a myth. China currently has under construction, or has plans to construct, some 120 new coal-fired generating stations, producing some 148GW (compare this to the 7GW coming from Muskrat Falls).
In their zeal to portray the Alberta oil sands as a shameful producer of emissions, climate activists label them negatively as ‘tar sands’. Further, those activists fail to attribute any credit or recognition to the huge investment and progress being made by Alberta companies in reducing their carbon footprint, particularly in comparison to the heavy crude coming out of Venezuela and Saudi.
So here is my point: Let’s park the emotion, try and get the facts straight and focus on the art of the possible.
The world came together in agreeing how to protect the oceans from illegal fishing. Surely if we can accomplish that we can figure out a mechanism to convert the world’s coal-fired generating capacity to natural gas? The world has natural gas in abundance, it’s cheap and it’s significantly cleaner to burn than coal. Were we able to achieve this, the result would be a reduction in emissions greater than converting all the cars in the world to electric vehicles. Yup, that’s pretty significant. Such a policy would create winners and losers. The winners would be countries like Qatar, a huge producer of LNG; the losers would be those jurisdictions who had to import the gas. But an international agency could fund such conversions through taxes imposed on the transport of gas internationally (in such a way that the ‘winners’ help pay for this conversion). No doubt other policies would be required to ensure such a transition and the newly-found dependence on gas was achieved in an equitable manner. Yes it would require the construction of pipelines, but do we want to reduce emissions or not? On that point, compare the emissions cost of extracting and transporting coal versus gas. The conclusion is clear.
Is this a stop-gap measure? Yes, but it would be profound in its impact and provide breathing room during which the world could continue to focus on really fundamental solutions. There can be no question that the ultimate answer to this and other vexing questions, like the cure for cancer, are resident in human ingenuity and innovation. Humanity has always been able to achieve progress. The difference this time is that we need to ensure it’s sustainable progress. •