Also published on Resilience
When you live in a petrostate like Canada or the US, and someone publicly floats the idea that we should begin to limit fossil fuel use by stopping a specific pipeline or levying a small carbon tax, you can expect someone to respond with the statement “Well, we can’t quit fossil fuels overnight.”
This statement is delivered with an air of argument-ending authority, as if the insight is worthy of simultaneous Nobel Prizes in physics, economics, accounting and rocket science.
Now, I’ve never heard anybody seriously suggest that we can quit fossil fuels overnight. It has also occurred to me that “we can’t quit fossil fuels overnight” may be a stand-in for “we really don’t want to, and we have no intention of, even slightly slowing down fossil fuel use, not anytime soon!”
But let’s put cynicism aside, and let “we can’t quit fossil fuels overnight” serve not as the end of a discussion, but as the beginning.
Why can’t we quit fossil fuels tomorrow, and what implications does that have for our way of life given that we are already in a climate emergency?
For the foreseeable future we will need aviation fuel for the water bombers that fight forest fires, which we can expect to occur with increasing frequency and intensity. We will need fuel for helicopters that rescue people from severe flooding, also increasing in frequency. As droughts become more frequent and widespread, with resulting crop failures, we will need fossil fuels to ship emergency food supplies long distances.
For the near-term future we will need diesel fuel for the tractors that power the industrial food system1, and more diesel fuel to transport the food to all the far-away megacities.2
For at least a decade or a few, we will need fossil fuels to run the mines and factories that can produce equipment for concentrating, transmitting, storing, and utilizing renewable-energies.3
On the other hand, purely from a climate-stabilizing point of view, we should quit fossil fuels tomorrow. Our fossil fuel consumption has already resulted in dangerous levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, and every additional increment of these gases will make our current climate crisis worse.
This is quite the predicament. If we do quit fossil fuels overnight, huge numbers of people will starve, the global economy will crash, and civilization will most likely collapse. If we don’t quit fossil fuels overnight, or at least damn soon, climate catastrophes will rapidly grow both in frequency and intensity, and yes, huge numbers of people will starve, the global economy will crash, and civilization will most likely collapse.
The best outcome seems clear to me (though not to most policymakers): we must decide which fossil-fueled services are essential to keeping us alive and helping us through our predicament, and we must drastically curtail all other fossil-fueled services, starting immediately.
As we quickly learned to do during the covid pandemic, we must distinguish between essential activities and discretionary activities. We must then recognize that where discretionary activities result in greenhouse gas emissions we can no longer afford them. We must come to this recognition and course of action not for a year or two of a pandemic, however, but for a generation or two, perhaps a lifetime or two, perhaps a century or two, until the climate crisis is in the rear-view mirror.
Sounds drastic. Sounds like what we might do if, when we say we’re in a climate crisis, we actually mean it – if we mean that our situation demands a crisis response, instead of continued wishful thinking the crisis will go away without any drastic measures.
Clearly the biggest changes would need to come from those of us in the “developed” world, those of us whose lifestyles contribute by far the biggest share of greenhouse gas emissions. For a large share of the world’s population, a drastic curtailment of discretionary fossil-fueled services would entail little change in behaviour, given that they consume little fossil fuel for either essential or discretionary services.
What might a distinction between essential and discretionary use of fossil fuels mean in practice? Regarding aviation, for example, we might recognize use of water bombers in fighting forest fires, helicopters in performing rescues, and airlifts to deliver essential food and medical supplies in the aftermaths of hurricanes. Fossil-powered vacations – flights to beach holidays, golf outings, or “eco-tourism” adventures that start and end on a runway – are clearly discretionary and would be banned or severely restricted, if we were to take the climate crisis seriously.
Use of fossil-powered industry for the manufacture of renewal energy equipment or basic medical technology would be deemed essential. Fossil-fueled manufacture of leaf blowers, recreational vehicles, patio heaters, and most of the products that litter our big-box stores before littering our garages and then our landfills, would be recognized as discretionary and would cease.
Production of plastic packaging and containers for some specialized needs might be essential while we develop and ramp up the production of replacements. Production of single-use disposables, most plastic packaging, and plastic toys would be deemed discretionary and would cease.
Production and use of fossil-burning trucks to haul heavy but essential goods long distances would be deemed essential, until renewable-energy powered trucks can be built in sufficient numbers and until our logistics systems can be right-sized. Production and much use of passenger-vehicles, especially the huge, heavy, monstrously over-powered passenger vehicles like SUVs and “light trucks”, would be deemed discretionary and drastically scaled back, in number and in size, starting now.
These few examples just scratch the surface, of course, and distinguishing between “essential” and “discretionary” will be more difficult in some cases than in others. Achieving political momentum for the necessary changes may be especially difficult. Individual, voluntary actions – important in acting as signposts and building credibility – will accomplish little on their own unless accompanied by society-wide transformation.4
Much of the change can and must happen in our transportation practices and systems, and that will be the subject of the several upcoming installments in this series.
In North America, and wherever high-energy-consumptive lifestyles are dominant, there is such vast wastage of fossil energy that we can make a big difference in emissions in a hurry – if we choose to. Though we can quibble for decades about the final difficult steps in getting to a zero carbon emissions economy, in the immediate future there is an awful lot of low-hanging fruit.
What matters now is not what we promise for 2050 – it’s what we actually do in 2023, 2024 and 2025 to get us on course.
1Jason Bradford provides an excellent overview of why it will be particularly challenging to transform our industrial agricultural system to renewable energy. His work looks at the limitations inherent in running large tractors on battery power, and the need for a significantly larger share of the population living and working in agricultural areas in future. These changes, clearly, cannot and will not happen overnight. See Bradford’s report The Future is Rural: Food System Adaptations to the Great Simplification (2019), and his chapter “The Future is Rural: Societal Adaptation to Energy Descent”, in Energy Transition and Economic Sufficiency (2021).
2Alice Friedemann’s 2016 book When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation is a good overview of the challenges in running heavy freight-moving trucks or trains on battery power.
3Even if and when we have developed a huge capacity in renewable-electricity generation, many industrial processes, particularly those which require high-temperature and high heat flux, will be difficult or impossible to convert from fossil fuel combustion to electricity. This includes production of concrete, steel, and a large array of chemicals used in industrial products. For an overview with further references, see my chapter “Energy Sprawl in the Renewable-Energy Sector”, in Energy Transition and Economic Sufficiency (2021).
4Finding the right mix of governmental policies that can quickly end the discretionary consumption of fossil fuels is not in the scope of this series. Such policies must not only be effective and practicable, but equitable. For one such mechanism, see Stan Cox’s excellent work on fair-share energy rations in Beyond the Green New Deal: Ending the Climate Emergency While We Still Can (2020).
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