The cover of the Jan 17th-23rd 2015 issue of The Economist magazine blares “Seize the Day: How Falling Oil Prices and New Technology Offer a Chance to Transform Energy Policy”. The Leader (here) speaks to the energy issue, as do several articles and a Special Report on energy technology. For a consistently capitalist magazine, their treatment of energy is surprisingly green. Their suggestions for improvement, of course include more freeing all energy markets and making them internationally seamless removing all subsidies for producing and consuming fossil fuels world-wide, and ensuring seamless global energy markets}. But it also backs up such things as carbon taxes and decreasing waste, smarter grids, and research on better storage for solar/electrical energy.
The Special Report points out advances in technology that are making alternate energy sources more economic (as one article points out, fossil fuels have historically gone up and down down in price, but solar keeps getting cheaper). It also underlines the need for new business models and the need for cutting energy waste. Nothing radical if you follow the energy situation, but the Economist may receive more attention from deniers in business and government than pioneers such as the Rocky Mountain Institute.
The Economist has consistently promoted cleaning up and modernizing energy production and usages, since such activities obviously open up great economic opportunities. It is a stand that may seem to run counter to the vested interests of traditional energy producers and consumers – big oil, coal, etc. But it is the future. After all, our steady state energy source is the sun. A couple of billion years ago or so there was a extinction event, sometimes called the Great Oxygenation Event (here). Cyanobacteria, the dominant life form upon this time, began producing oxygen by photosynthesis, and in the process killed themselves off, leaving an atmosphere containing free oxygen. And here, a long time later, we are. Are we going to kill ourselves off and yield the scene to life forms that live on carbon dioxide and methane?
The battle will be long and nasty, and will be fought in time periods consistent with our life spans rather than in billions of years. It will be a difficult one since oil, gas, and coal are such efficient sources of energy, so affordable, so integral to our society and so dominant a part of our economies, but we will be forced to clean up our act and our economy and we will adapt. As a tiny personal example, I used to swear that I would leave the location in which I live (which I love) if burning wood in fireplaces was ever outlawed. We’re close. Our area has outlawed the inclusion of wood burning fireplaces in new houses, and we now have “no burn” days so often that my wife and I switched to gas logs a year ago. We are not leaving.
The age of fire must assume a much less destructive character. Late developments (fracking, tar sands), might cause us to think we have a long supply of fossil fuel (several generations) which we can simply burn, but producing, refining, and moving it will continue to be more costly, we will continue to fight over it and play economic games with it, damage to the ecosphere will continue, and we will have to continue to admit that we are dependent on long dead plants and animals. Being humans, things will probably get worse before they get better. It will take us some bitter arguments, more costly incidents (BP and OPEC) and require thinking and learning a lot, but we will change. We will learn to use our fossil fuels more thoughtfully and we will end up with unused fossil fuels in the ground, just as we ended up with unused oil in the whales.
Now is a good time to get much more serious on this transition. The warning signals have been increasing over many years, and we have heeded them to some extent, but we “developed” countries have been building our dependence on simply burning fossil fuels sharply over the past 150 years, and now we are facing large populations doing the same. It will take at least that long to become more sophisticated in generating and using energy. I remember the years it took in denial and then in technical development to cut the emissions from automobiles. This is a much larger challenge. And we in the U.S. seem to consider ourselves leaders of the world — why aren’t we leading it?
I admire the role the Economist is playing in the change, especially since they may be losing a bit of support from the petroleum and coal industries, so-called energy policy experts, and all those who are dominated by them. I notice in the letters and internet responses, some Economist readers are accusing them of “liberal” thinking, obviously an obscene activity to said readers. But hey, by now oil and coal companies should be acting like energy industries, in deed as well as in their advertising. And if oil prices stay down, we can raise taxes enough to fund our breaking-down infrastructure and accomplish the technology development necessarily to help them use our fossil fuels in a more intelligent way. They are too valuable to simply burn, and we need to quit using our fragile ecosphere as a free dump . We definitely should seize the day.