Monday, January 28, 2013

When will we stop wasting fossil fuels by burning them?

Coal, gas and oil are used to make all sorts of everyday objects, but how we will make those things when fossil fuels run out?

Paul Brown for The Climate News Network
Monday 28 January 2013The

The penny had to drop eventually – fossil fuels like coal might be more valuable if they were used to make medicines, chemicals and fertilisers rather than wasted by being burned.

While we know that fossil fuels are used to make all sorts of everyday objects such as plastics, carbon fibre, soap, aspirins, solvents and dyes, it has never occurred to most of us how we will make these things when the coal, gas and oil run out.

To help concentrate minds on the potential waste of resources, the World Futures Council based in Munich, has attempted for the first timeto put an economic price on burning fossil fuels rather than saving them for more "useful" applications.

The WFC's Matthias Kroll claims the loss of this important natural resource runs into trillions of dollars a year but does not appear in economic calculations of the costs of generating energy. It should particularly be factored into the cost comparisons between renewables and fossil fuels otherwise a false impression is created, he argues.

Kroll's report and his calculations in the rarified field of economics may seem difficult to grasp but he backs them up with figures about the volume of fossil fuels used for industry in a sophisticated economy – in this case, Germany.

Surprisingly, 13.5% of the crude oil in the country is not burned for energy but used to manufacture other products like chemicals. For natural gas it is 4.1% and hard coal 0.7%. Even that small percentage for coal is still 10,318 tonnes.

Although Kroll concedes that Germany, because it is an advanced country, uses a higher proportion of fossil fuels in manufacturing than most, he argues that developing countries will need these resources later for their own industries.

His point is that it is possible to protect the use of increasingly valuable fossil raw materials for the future by substituting these materials with renewables and we should take that into account when working out the full cost of energy production.

On his calculations when we burn fossil fuels rather than save them for more useful purposes we are incurring a loss worldwide of between $8.8bn and $9.3bn dollars a day.

It may be possible to argue with some of the report's findings on costs. For example, sulphur is often extracted from oil before refining and would simply be a waste if not used for fertilisers. On the other hand many of the uses of fossil fuels are the primary reason for taking them out of the ground and as a raw material they already are more valuable than as diesel in the back of a lorry.

There will also be those who say fossil fuel reserves, particularly of coal, are so vast we can use them for whatever purpose we like. It is the same sort of argument that says we should not worry about the effect of climate change on future generations.

• Paul Brown is a journalist at The Climate News Network

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