What would the world look like with less fossil fuel consumption?
If you’re reading this, you are probably concerned about climate change, and understand that fossil fuels must be phased out. Many climate activists think that if they protest long and hard enough, governments will simply replace fossil fuel power plants with wind and solar power. They are sadly mistaken; most governments will not do this.
Wind and solar power installations generate power about 30% of the time; the sun doesn’t shine at night, and the wind does not blow every day. Cities require continuous power; to power a city with solar or wind would require energy storage in addition to solar or wind power installation.
Energy storage will probably take the form of thermal storage. Heat can be stored in tanks of molten salt; stored heat can be used to generate power at night. Thermal storage is cheaper than rechargeable battery storage, because rechargeable batteries need to be replaced every few years.
The Andasol solar power station in Spain combines solar power with thermal energy storage to produce continuous power. The cost of continuous power from Andasol is Euro 0.27 per kWh (which converts to $0.32 or Tk27). Power from fossil fuels only costs about $0.075 per kWh.
There are very few countries where consumers will be willing to pay such a high price for power. That’s why governments will not replace fossil fuel power with continuous solar or wind power. Intermittent solar or wind power is cheap, but continuous solar or wind power is expensive.
Unfortunately, that’s not the only problem with wind and solar power. Many countries like Bangladesh don’t have enough land for large (commercial) solar farms. Our government is (correctly) concerned about food security, and will probably not allow agricultural fields to be converted into commercial solar farms. Bangladesh also experiences destructive seasonal storms which have stopped anyone from investing in wind turbines.
Bangladesh is not unique. Many cities in northern and southern latitudes don’t have enough hours of daylight to rely on solar power in winter. So, in many places, solar and wind power are not practical. Human civilization won’t be able to end its fossil fuel addiction without building new nuclear power plants in almost every country.
Fortunately, the next generation of nuclear power plants are likely to be molten salt reactors, which will be much safer than today’s nuclear plants. Molten salt reactors cannot overheat, and will therefore never repeat the kind of accidents which were seen at Fukushima and Chernobyl.
Molten salt reactors will also produce easily manageable radioactive waste. The waste from today’s nuclear reactors must be stored for up to 50,000 years. However, waste from molten salt reactors will need to be stored for only about 300 years.
Expansion of the nuclear power industry is only one part of the solution. Reducing fossil fuel consumption will require international cooperation. Suppose that one large country were to replace all of its fossil fuel power plants with nuclear, wind, and solar power, and replace all of its cars with electric cars.
That would reduce the demand for fossil fuels, which would cause the prices of fossil fuels to fall. The fall in prices would prompt other countries (particularly poor countries like Bangladesh) to buy the (cheaper) fossil fuels and burn them.
To reduce global demand for fossil fuels, a few large countries need to create a “carbon tax alliance” and impose “carbon taxes” (taxes on fossil fuels consumed within their borders). This would reduce their consumption of fossil fuels (and promote investment in nuclear and renewable power).
The members of the carbon tax alliance would also have to impose carbon taxes on imports from countries outside the alliance. That would give all exporting countries an incentive to join the carbon tax alliance.
Most governments have been wary of carbon taxes as they hurt consumers. However, carbon taxes would generate revenue, which can be used to benefit consumers. Carbon tax revenue should be returned to individual taxpayers (not corporate taxpayers) as “carbon dividends.”
This could make most low-income families better off. Low income families don’t own cars and don’t travel by air, so they can be made better off by giving them a carbon dividend which is higher than their increased expenditure on transportation, power, and fuel.
Carbon taxes would work by changing consumer behaviour. Taxing fossil fuels would make air travel more expensive; people would adjust by flying less. Taxing fossil fuels would make driving more expensive; people would adjust by purchasing electric vehicles (or bicycles).
The people whose lives would really be disrupted by carbon taxes would be those who work in the fossil fuel industry, or in services like air travel. Carbon taxes would make these industries shrink; many people working in these industries would have to be re-trained for completely different jobs.
That’s not as bad as it sounds, though. Carbon taxes would trigger massive investments in solar, wind, and nuclear power. These investments would create jobs.
Modern societies will only be able to reduce consumption of fossil fuels if governments shut down power plants which burn fossil fuels. Well-meaning individuals today are buying household solar panels and electric cars, but this will have no effect unless fossil fuel power plants are replaced (probably with nuclear power plants).
There are two possible futures. It is possible that we will continue to burn fossil fuels until all coastal regions go underwater, and tropical countries become too hot to grow crops. It is also possible that we will significantly cut down on burning fossil fuels and prevent a climate catastrophe.
Either way, the world of tomorrow will look very different from the world of today.
Kazi Zahin Hasan is a businessman living in Dhaka.