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Can Fossil Fuels Be Sustainable?

Energy and Sustainability

Energy and sustainability are two intricately linked concepts. Innovations related to the development of energy resources have helped to ignite the advancement of global civilizations. As society’s ability to efficiently harvest energy resources has progressively grown over the past century, tremendous growth in the global population and the economy has also been experienced. The global population was around two billion in 1900, when the development of petroleum products and the electric grid first started to become prevalent. At this time, economists also estimate that the value of the global economy was equivalent to about a trillion dollars. Today, the global population is nearing eight billion, while the economy as a whole has been valued at $75 trillion (Randolph and Masters, 2018). Between 1900 and 2020, there has been around a 100-fold rise in the consumption of fossil fuels. It is clear that energy has been critical in fueling the global population and economy over the past century. However, after over a century of relying on fossil fuels to power economic growth and the development of global civilizations, some economists and natural resource professionals have highlighted that the global energy system is becoming unsustainable.

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What Is Sustainability?

What is sustainability, and how does it relate to energy? In its simplest form, the concept of sustainability involves three key pillars, which include the environment, the economy, and social aspects. Another way to think about sustainability is to view the three pillars as the planet, profits, and people. As part of the Brundtland Report of 1987, the concept of sustainability and sustainable development first started to gain traction within the global community of policy makers and environmental advocates. The Brundtland Report was named after former Norwegian President Gro Harlem Brundtland and was instrumental in rallying support from leaders of the world’s developed and developing countries to take action on global environmental initiatives. The United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development was the driving force behind the development of the Brundtland Report, which highlighted the imperative need to unify efforts related to the environment and global development to enhance the health, prosperity, and welfare of society.

Another unique aspect of the Brundtland Report was the fact that it was the first written paper to describe how sustainable development could be viewed as a type of environmental stewardship that would support the continuation of intergenerational equity (Kates et al, 2005). This led to the creation of the now widely known definition of sustainable development, which is said to be development that meets the need of the present while not hindering the future generations from also being able to meet their developmental and natural resource needs. With this definition of sustainable development in mind, environmentalists and energy experts have questioned whether today’s levels of energy production would offer future generations a similar ability to access comparable levels of energy resources. Scientists say that the world’s rapidly growing population and the accumulation of greater levels of wealth in developing countries have put an increasingly unsustainable strain on the world’s natural resources and energy reserves (Hecht et al, 2012).

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Urbanization and Population Growth

The exceptional challenges linked to rapid levels of global urbanization and population growth will require global policy makers to work together on a mutual vision to promote sustainability through the implementation of policies and programs that balance the needs of the economy, the environment, and humans as a whole. Determining how best to utilize future energy resources is one of the primary challenges that must be addressed to sustain a growing population, as well as Earth’s natural resources. On the other hand, a desire to continuously promote robust levels of community livability and economic growth has been seen as a barrier to global sustainability by some scientists and environmental advocates (Hecht et al, 2012). When fossil fuels are included into discussions related to sustainability and economic prosperity, there are a wide range of debates that have occurred about the role that these sources of energy will have in a sustainable future.

As discussions about sustainable development have continued to dominate global policy initiatives, this term has increasingly been used to describe efforts to broadly attain a desirable society. Similarly, the definition of sustainability has broadened to finding an equilibrium between social, environmental, and economic challenges (Holden et al, 2014). When it comes to developing desirable communities or finding an equilibrium between the pillars of sustainability, some economists say that fossil fuels can continue to support these concepts for the foreseeable future. Even with the numerous flaws that fossil fuels have, this source of energy may continue to be the most cost-effective way to fuel the development of modern cities around the world for the next century. While climate change has become one of the most critical threats known to humanity, the development of some new carbon management technologies may help to offset some of the greenhouse gas emissions that have traditionally been emitted from the burning of fossil fuels.

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Fossil Fuels Enable Growth

Despite the clear drawbacks of non-renewable sources of energy, fossil fuels have enabled the growth of the global economy for over the past two centuries. As global energy consumption has continued to rise after each passing decade, abundant and cost-effective fossil fuels have allowed economies to continue to grow. While renewable energy has gained in popularity and functionality, fossil fuels still provide the vast majority of global energy and could not currently be replaced without a drastic increase in technological advancements and cost. Therefore, even with the desire to create sustainable communities and promote sustainable development in general, fossil fuels will still have to be a part of the global energy portfolio for at least the next few decades. As technology improves to support renewables like wind, solar, and hydro, global energy companies are expected to increase their share of renewable energy generation. Until then, within a world that has become increasingly concerned with rising carbon emissions, some policy makers are moving forward with the development of carbon capture technology to reduce the impact that fossil fuels have on the environment.  

Carbon Capture

Over the past few decades, there have been many attempts to enhance technologies related to carbon sequestration. One of the earliest notions of capturing carbon before it reaches the atmosphere dates back to the 1970s when Italian physicist Cesare Marchetti attempted to devise a method to inject carbon dioxide into the Strait of Gibraltar for permanent storage within the Atlantic Ocean. After this failed attempt, there were many other experiments developed to evaluate opportunities to store carbon deep within the world’s oceans. In addition to injecting carbon dioxide into oceans, there have been suggestions that excess carbon from fossil fuels can be permanently stored in underground reservoirs. In fact, this is currently being conducted in some parts of West Texas, where a process known as enhanced oil recovery is being used to store roughly 20 million tons of carbon dioxide each year (Lackner, 2002). Carbon dioxide is injected below the ground and in turn helps to pump out more oil during the enhanced drilling process.  

In addition to capturing carbon by injecting it underground, there have been experiments conducted to capture carbon dioxide directly from the air through power plants and other similar methods. However, while this process could be effective, it has proven to be very expensive. Until technologies improve so that carbon capture becomes a cost-effective process, these efforts will likely remain conceptual ideas rather than solutions to make fossil fuel use more sustainable. Although, if the current trend in global energy consumption continues, carbon capture technologies will have to be implemented to mitigate the most catastrophic impacts of climate change. For example, if the demand for fossil fuels doubles by 2050, greenhouse gas emissions will significantly surpass global emissions targets that have been set to keep global warming below two degrees Celsius (Foster & Elzinga, 2015).

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The Paris Agreement

When the Paris Climate Agreement was established in 2015, some energy analysts predicted that the end of the fossil fuel era had begun. However, since the Paris Agreement was ratified, fossil fuel consumption has continued to rise while so have carbon emissions. The decline of fossil fuels has yet to commence, even with the rapidly declining costs associated with renewable energy generation. Even coal consumption continues to rise in the developing countries of Southeast Asia. In literature that discusses the principles of a sustainable energy industry, fossil fuels are almost always left out of the picture. Even though emissions are rising, governments continue to move forward with low-carbon initiatives. If carbon capturing technology becomes widespread and cheap to implement, that won’t solve all the issue for fossil fuels. For something to be sustainable, it has to be able to be maintained for many generations into the future. Even if climate change and rising carbon emissions weren’t factors, fossil fuels will eventually disappear. That in and of itself is not sustainable.

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Fossil Fuels for Sustainable Development

The energy dimension is one of the most challenging items for sustainability professionals to effectively address through policy initiatives. The energy consumption needed to power modern societies has given humanity a large carbon footprint. Continuing to sustain high levels of economic growth in both developed and developing nations is expected to intensify the trend of growing carbon emissions. However, raising the standard of living for people around the world is one of the key pillars of sustainability. Therefore, to effectively promote economic growth to sustain high levels of community livability, it will be imperative for energy companies to invest in modern technologies to reduce carbon emissions and support clean and affordable supplies of energy. While it may not be possible to extract fossil fuels for hundreds of years into the future, technological advancements made today can help to make the industry more sustainable.

Efforts related to sustainability and sustainable development would not be successful without abundant supplies of affordable energy. Since fossil fuels still provide sufficient and cost-effective supplies of energy, oil, gas, and coal will have to be part of the global energy portfolio for at least the next few decades to move forward with sustainable development initiatives. While developed nations may start to ramp up efforts to generate renewable energy because they have the technology and the funding to do so, four-fifths of the global population has yet to cross the threshold into what is considered the developed world (Lackner, 2002). In today’s world, one-third of primary energy demand can be traced to oil (Holdren, 2007). When looking at the entire global energy portfolio, oil, coal, and natural gas still make up about 84 percent of energy demand (Randolph and Masters, 2018). Therefore, renewables cannot uniformly replace fossil fuels. Alternative technologies have not progressed enough to make this feasible. Until that happens, the world’s energy producers will have to move forward with efficiency enhancements to make fossil fuels more sustainable.

Sources

Foster, S., and Elzinga, D. (2015). “The Role of Fossil Fuels in a Sustainable Energy System.” UN Chronicle: The Magazine of the United Nations.

Hecht, A. D., et al. (2012). “Creating the Future We Want.” Sustainability Science, Practice, and Policy: Vol. 8, p. 62-75.

Holden, E., et al. (2014). “Sustainable development: Our Common Future Revisited.” Global Environmental Change. Vol. 26, p. 130-139.

Holdren, J. (2007). “Energy and Sustainability.” American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Kates, R. W., et al. (2005). “What is sustainable development? Goals, indicators, values, and practice.” Environment: Vol. 47, p. 8-21

Kuhlman, T., and J. Farrington. (2010). “What is Sustainability?” Sustainability:  Vol. 2, p. 3436-3448.

Lackner, K. (2002). “Can Fossil Carbon Fuel the 21st Century?” International Geology Review: Vol. 44, p. 1122–1133.

Randolph, J., and Masters, G. (2018). “Energy for Sustainability: Foundations for Technology, Planning, and Policy.” Island Press.

Wood, G., and Baker, K. (2020). “The Palgrave Handbook of Managing Fossil Fuels and Energy Transitions.” The Palgrave Macmillan Publishing Company.

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