Fossil Fuels, Pollution, Economics, and the Importance of Seeing Motion Pictures Instead of Snapshots

In Climate Change, Environment by E. Calvin Beisner0 Comments

Recently someone wrote this to the Cornwall Alliance:

I’m contacting you because I came across some of your internet articles published on the Heartland Institute [and] Cornwall Alliance [websites] and Youtube Videos.

I’m from Germany enjoying a very good life so far, work for an American company and travelled to many places in the world (Africa, North & South America, Asia, Australia and Europe). I’ve also worked in the US twice when I was a student and got to know many Americans which I’m still friends with. I think the USA and its smart citizens do a lot of good things.

However, I’m a bit puzzled discovering the information that’s shared by the Heartland institute and you personally.

I watched videos from the Vatican Environment Workshop (end of April [here and here]) and others where you’re promoting the continued use of fossil fuels to help the poor. I’m definitely in favor of helping the poor but from what I’ve seen in the past decades and during my travels to eg. India, Kenia – the age of fossil fuels didn’t make the poor wealthier but only a few wealthy people even wealthier. The poor are actually the ones suffering from the consequences with polluted environments (eg. Article from Guardian.co.uk about Chinese coal mines) or thinking of the Niger Delta (just google for images).

Don’t you think remote solar powered and wind park energy solutions can work better for the poor. I don’t see a big energy grids connected to big coal factories reaching to remote villages?

I can understand why this person would wonder as he does, since as one travels around the developing world at this point one doesn’t see a lot of major electrical power grids supplied by anything—whether fossil fuels, nuclear, hydropower, wind, or solar.

However, one of the key principles for understanding economic development and environmental quality is to focus not on “snapshots” (what the world, or a given part of it, looks like at the moment) but at “motion pictures” (what happens in the world, or a given part of it, over the long term). Had he “taken a snapshot” of western Europe and North America as little as 100 years ago, he’d have found them almost absolutely devoid of electricity grids. Yet today almost everyone in both regions of the world gets residential, commercial, and industrial electricity from the grid, most of which is generated from fossil fuels, at a price that amounts to what they earn in just a few minutes of their work per day. A “motion picture” of those places over the last 100 years would have revealed that transition as it occurred.

Today, sub-Saharan Africa, much of India and China, and much of Asia and Latin America are almost absolutely devoid of electricity grids. Why should we assume that those areas cannot go through the same transition from no grids to grids that we did? Indeed, why should they not go through that transition more rapidly than we did, since they don’t have to go through the step of developing the technologies of generating and transmitting electricity that we’ve already developed?

He suggests that in places like India and Kenya “the age of fossil fuels didn’t make the poor wealthier but only a few wealthy people even wealthier.” When we adopt the motion-picture perspective, we discover that the “age of fossil fuels” has hardly dawned in Kenya and is only a little farther along in India, if we define the “age of fossil fuels” as the age when electricity generated from them, and transportation fueled by them, become widespread among the population. And that takes time, just as it did in the now-developed world.

It is true that some people get very wealthy from profits from their investments or from their labor (and in many cases both—whether the labor is at the board, executive, managerial, or “blue-collar” labor level) in fossil fuel mining, drilling, refining, and marketing, and from electricity production and transmission. Is there something wrong with that? Through their labor and investments, they provide an extremely valuable service to millions and millions of people—a service without which those consumers would be trapped in poverty and the suffering that invariably accompanies it. Reduce the rewards to investors and laborers in those industries, and the amount of that service provided will decline, which means more people will be left in poverty and its attendant suffering.

What our correspondent missed is how much ordinary people who are not involved in investing or working in the energy industries benefit from energy, and how their benefit is tied to the price/value ratio of the electricity (and other forms of energy—especially fuel for transportation) they buy from the industries.

Let’s use a pretty concrete example. The average sub-Saharan African woman spends about 6 to 8 hours every day just gathering wood and dung (and plastering the dung onto the outer walls of her hut to dry), which she then uses as her primary cooking and heating fuels—pretty much the only energy she consumes other than the food she eats. The smoke from burning those kills about 4 million people worldwide every year and debilitates hundreds of millions of others to varying degrees and for varying periods, reducing their ability to work productively to lift themselves out of poverty. Imagine that you are one of those sub-Saharan African women. She spends much of her bodily energy each day just gathering enough energy to cook your food and heat your hut—and that’s all. How much time, and how much bodily energy, does she have left for doing other productive things by which she might lift herself out of poverty?

Meanwhile, the average western European, perhaps like the person who wrote us (though with the amount of traveling he says he’s done I suspect his income is probably above average for Western Europeans), buys electricity not just to cook her food and heat her home (which is much more than a little thatched or cardboard hut) but to supply lots of lights all over her home (which enable her children to study at night, gaining education necessary for them to earn high wages as adults), and a nice-sized refrigerator in which to preserve food, and a television or two, a radio or two, a mobile phone, an electric washer and dryer for her clothes, probably an electric dishwasher, a computer like the one on which you wrote me, probably a printer (and not just a printer—probably a printer/scanner/fax/copier combination), and various other electrical devices—not to mention the electricity that powers the cell phone and Internet and “cloud” networks, and the stores and hospitals, that she takes for granted.

Her use of that electricity puts neither her nor any of her neighbors at significant health risk because she generates no smoke, and the electric generating plants that generate the electricity she uses are so clean that they pose very little risk.

And what does that electricity cost her? Only the money she earns in a few minutes of her work per day. That leaves her free to use for all kinds of other purposes, including work and leisure, almost all the rest of the 6 to 8 hours per day that her sub-Saharan African counterpart uses only to gather the energy necessary to do nothing more than cook her food and heat her hut. Is it any wonder that she produces more than her poor counterpart in sub-Saharan Africa?

India and China have made it crystal clear that they intend to continue enlarging their use of fossil fuels because that’s the least expensive way to bring cleaner energy to their people. Other developing countries are bound to do the same.

Why not use wind and solar instead of fossil fuels? Aren’t they cleaner? And aren’t wind and sunshine free?

First, when you do a full life-cycle assessment, including the health risks from mining and refining and, after the wind turbines and solar panels have been used for their effective lives, disposing of the rare-earth, toxic metals that are indispensable to building and operating wind tunnels and solar panels, they really aren’t so clean after all.

Second, wind and sunshine are no more “free” than are coal, oil, and natural gas. All are there in nature. The cost is in harnessing them to serve as the high-quality, highly refined, precise, abundant energy necessary for modern economies to function.

Wind and solar energy as found in nature are very low density. Coal, oil, and natural gas are much higher density. The less dense an energy source is, the more costly it is to harness it to serve our needs. That’s why, on average, it costs about two to eight times as much to generate electricity from wind and solar as from coal and natural gas.

The consequence of this is that requiring people to get their electricity from wind and solar rather than from fossil fuels means requiring them to spend more for their energy—and while that may be a tolerably small problem for already wealth people in the developed world (though “fuel poverty” caused by government-mandated transition from fossil fuels to wind and solar as major fuels for electricity generation has cost tens of thousands of lives even in Great Britain in recent winters), for the poor in the developing world it can simply mean that they can’t afford electricity at all, and certainly not in the quantities necessary to energize the common electrical devices to which everyone in the developed world has grown accustomed. And that in turn means condemning those people to more generations of poverty and hence more generations of hunger, malnutrition, disease, and premature death.

Remote solar (and wind) power can offer small-scale, short-term solutions to some of the smaller energy needs of people in the developing world, but for them ever to enjoy the benefits of electricity in the amounts people in developed societies take for granted—amounts that give us the healthy, long, and in many ways enjoyable lives we have—they will have to have grid electricity, because the cost per unit of production falls as scale of production grows. The small solar arrays now so popular in some development organizations provide only enough electricity (typically about 40 watts) to power a single, low-power light bulb, and that only during daylight. That doesn’t include heating or air conditioning (without which windows and doors must be left open, increasing risk from insect-borne diseases like malaria, dengue, and yellow fever) a home, refrigerating food (to prevent spoilage and disease), and all those other things you and I take for granted. And the cost of providing that small solar array is utterly out of reach for the typical poor person himself. It comes to him only as others pay for it.

So far as energy is concerned, the crucial challenge for lifting and keeping whole societies out of poverty is that the energy must be abundant, affordable, and reliable. Right now only nuclear, fossil fuels, and—in the right locations—hydropower, geothermal, and possibly tidal power can meet that challenge. Wind and solar cannot. They’re nice add-ons for particular uses in particular places for those who can use them, but they’re nowhere near ready to provide the abundant, affordable reliable electricity the world really needs.

Our correspondent was right, of course, to be concerned about pollution associated with recovering and refining fossil fuels (as you should be also about pollution associated with recovering and refining rare-earth metals for wind and solar industries). But as with energy, so with pollution, one must take motion pictures, not snapshots.

He would have found similar if not worse problems with pollution in the developed world in the early decades of the fossil fuel industries there. But most people in those societies considered the risks from that pollution acceptable in exchange for the benefits derived from the energy—and their rising life expectancies, falling infant and child mortality rates, and rising incomes showed they were right.

As they became wealthier, they became willing to invest some of their wealth in reducing that pollution. That’s what environmental economists call the “environmental transition,” or the “environmental Kuznets Curve.” That same thing is happening around the developing world—indeed, faster than it did in the now developed world, because the developing world gets to apply technologies for pollution abatement pioneered in the developed world without bearing the cost of pioneering them.

I discuss these and related ideas in more detail in my monograph What Is the Most Important Environmental Task Facing American Christians Today? The second edition of that is available in print here.

Dr. Beisner is Founder and National Spokesman of The Cornwall Alliance; former Associate Professor of Historical Theology & Social Ethics, at Knox Theological Seminary, and of Interdisciplinary Studies, at Covenant College; and author of “Where Garden Meets Wilderness: Evangelical Entry into the Environmental Debate” and “Prospects for Growth: A Biblical View of Population, Resources, and the Future.”

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