Phasing out Fossil Fuels

by David Driesen

February 13, 2013

We will phase out fossil fuels.  We have no choice. They are a finite resource and at some point they will run out.  Admittedly, coal will not run out nearly as quickly as oil, but sooner or later all fossil fuel resources will run out. 

The only question we face is whether we phase out fossil fuels before we have set in motion climate disruption’s worst effects or instead just allow a phase-out to occur through price shocks and shortages that we are ill-prepared to cope with, and risk a climate catastrophe.  Obviously, a managed phase-out makes much more sense.  Climate disruption will plague us with increasingly violent storms, flooding, drought, a spread of infectious diseases, and other calamities.  A reasonably rapid phase-out will help us avoid some of these impacts by first reducing and eventually eliminating emissions of carbon dioxide, the principal greenhouse gas.  At the same time, switching to cleaner fuels will save thousands of lives annually and many more illnesses right away, as burning the fossil fuels that cause climate disruption also causes particulate pollution and urban smog (tropospheric ozone).  A phase-out of fossil fuels also would gradually end destruction of land through coal mining and disastrous oil spills, like that of the Deepwater Horizon.

Although we cannot end fossil fuel use right away, we must move in the direction of a phase-out as rapidly as we can.  Carbon dioxide emitted in the atmosphere adds to the preexisting store of carbon and remains there for a very long time.  Hence, every year of inaction adds to a cumulative store of carbon in the atmosphere, making the climate disruption problem irreversibly worse.

We must rid ourselves of the illusion that we can drill our way to energy and price security.  Oil trades on a world market, even oil coming from the United States.  In 2011, we imported 45% of our oil from abroad, more than half from OPEC countries, and that was the lowest percentage since 1995.  Renewable energy, however, relies overwhelmingly on domestic fuels.  You cannot ship sunlight or wind to China.

In order to make a phase-out of fossil fuels a smaller, more manageable project, we must maximize energy efficiency investments.  Happily, these investments tend to pay for themselves even before we consider their environmental benefits.  For example, when EPA analyzed the costs of increasing passenger car’s fuel efficiency to an average of 54.5 miles per gallon, it found that the savings in fuel costs would more than offset the cost of the technological investments that carmakers would have to make to bring about this very ambitious improvement.

Around the world, other countries have made large strides toward reducing fossil fuel use.  The French, for example, use nuclear energy, not fossil fuels, for most of the utility sector, employing rigid state control over design to minimize the risk of accidents.  Nuclear power, however, has large costs, generates radioactive waste, and risks accidents that can have devastating effects. Spain and Germany now rely on renewable energy for about 25% of their electricity generation, almost double the amount produced in the United States.  This increase has also brought with it new jobs -- more than 200,000 in Germany since 2004.

Countries that have made strides in this area have enacted government policies moving toward a phase-out of fossil fuels.  They have enacted these policies knowing that at current market prices only a portion of the clean energy sources we need cost less than fossil fuels.  But they have seen the prices of renewables drop as companies “learn by doing” in response to government incentives.  In the long run, prices of fossil fuels will likely rise as shortages develop and we drill for oil in more and more exotic locales, whilst prices will drop for cleaner energy as newer technologies advance.  Countries that develop and deploy clean energy sources now will gain a competitive advantage over those still relying on 19th and 20th century technology.    

In meeting this challenge, we need not deny its difficulty.  All energy sources, even clean renewables, have some potential downsides that we must manage.  And there are many legitimate questions about how far and how quickly we can move down the phase-out path in light of substitutes’ limitations.  But, as explained at the outset, we have no choice but to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels as much as we can long before they run out.   We should embrace this challenge, not run from it.

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David M. Driesen is a University Professor at Syracuse University College of Law, and an Adjunct Associate Professor at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry. He holds a J.D. from Yale Law School. He is a member of the editorial board of the Carbon and Climate Law Review, published in Berlin and Environmental Law, published in Oxford.

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