This commentary originally appeared in the Austin American-Statesman on December 29, 2013.
The holiday season often evokes reflection on the blessings we enjoy, but which our not-so-distant ancestors lacked and much of humanity still lives without. Our energy wealth provided by fossil fuels is a catalyst of these blessings. Sorely missing from current discussion of a so-called “social cost of carbon” is recognition of the inestimable human benefits of fossil fuels. Many forget that the relatively recent Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries – dependent on fossil fuels – was one of the two greatest advances in human society since man lived in caves as a hunter and gatherer. The other turning point was the Neolithic agricultural revolution when man began cultivating crops and domesticating animals.
The breakthrough that is known as the Industrial Revolution took off when England methodically tapped the energy in fossil fuels. Harnessing the vast store of concentrated energy in fossil fuels allowed mankind, for the first time, to escape the natural world’s energy limits — intractable constraints that had kept human lives of all but the most privileged “poor, nasty, brutish and short,” as Thomas Hobbes memorably put it.
Before the Industrial Revolution, all societies were dependent on the limited flow of solar energy captured in living plants and animals for subsistence needs such as food, fuel, and shelter. Living conditions varied across societies and epochs but there was no upward trend.
The fixed supply of land on which to raise crops and livestock and from which to harvest timber was regularly decimated by natural disasters or political upheaval. With even modest population growth, human demand regularly exceeded this fixed supply of energy. The Industrial Revolution supplanted this limited flow of energy from plants with the vast store of imperishable fossil fuels — the remains of once living plants and animals geologically compressed over millions of years.
Use of the concentrated energy in fossil fuels unleashed economic productivity on a scale never imagined in human history. England first used coal to displace scarce timber for heat energy. And when innovative minds developed a steam engine which converted heat energy into mechanical energy, the economic limits under which all human societies had previously existed were blown apart. A life of back-breaking drudgery was no longer the inescapable condition of the overwhelming majority of mankind.
Life expectancy had changed little throughout all human history until the Industrial Revolution. Over the past 250 years, global life expectancy has tripled. Income per capita has increased 11-fold. Not coincidentally, man-made emissions of carbon dioxide have risen three-fold. Fossil-fuel powered mechanization revolutionized economic productivity, increased incomes, population and life expectancy across all classes.
Matt Ridley, author of The Rational Optimist, captures the magnitude of the breakthrough. “By 1870, the burning of coal in Britain was generating as many calories as would have been expended by 850 million laborers. It was as if each worker had 20 servants at his beck and call. The capacity of the country’s steam engines alone was equivalent to six million horses.”
Fossils fuels also augment food supply. Fertilizer derived from natural gas has increased agricultural productivity by 40-60 percent. According to economist Indur Goklany, without fossil fuels, an area equivalent to U.S., Canada, and India combined would have to be converted into crop land to meet global food demand. Fossil fuel-based fertilizer, pesticides, and mechanized substitutes for animal power have saved vast natural ecosystems from conversion to cropland. And the increased atmospheric concentration of man-made CO2 has enhanced plant growth.
Although combustion of fossil fuels releases pollutants, that environmental damage can, and is, undergoing dramatic reversal far quicker than could the conversion of natural ecosystems to croplands. The prosperity supported by fossil fuel energy allows investment in effective technologies to reduce and eliminate harmful pollution.
Renewable energy still provides a sliver of global demand. Despite the billions of dollars in subsidies, retail prices are still 2-3 times higher than fossil fuels. Renewable energy from wind and solar remain diffuse, intermittent and parasitic on fossil fuels for back-up. Nuclear fission provides energy comparable or superior to fossil fuels, but the public remains resistant to broad use.
Energy-dense, abundant, imperishable, versatile, reliable, portable and affordable, fossil fuels provide 85 percent of the world’s energy because they are superior to the current alternatives. And hundreds of millions still await the benefits of affordable energy. Until energy sources comparable or superior to fossil fuels are fully available, policies to reduce emissions of CO2 should proceed with caution lest they prematurely jettison the well-springs of mankind’s greatest advance — the blessings of which literally light up the holiday season.
White is a distinguished senior fellow-in-residence at the Texas Public Policy Foundation and the director for the Armstrong Center for Energy & the Environment.