Guest contributor Max Gagliardi explores the fundamental and often overlooked role of fossil fuels in our modern civilization. From the buildings we inhabit to the food we consume, Max delves into why the complete eradication of fossil fuels is not only practically impossible but could also hinder human progress.
We will never fully eliminate the use of fossil fuels. This may seem like a contentious statement given the common narrative in the media and in politics suggesting the need to rapidly eliminate fossil fuels. However, not only is the total elimination of fossil fuels practically impossible, but such a move would also be detrimental to human progress and is indeed radical to propose.
Consider the four pillars of modern society: cement, steel, ammonia, and plastic. These fundamental products depend on large-scale inputs of fossil fuels, both for process heat and as feedstocks. The International Energy Agency expects the consumption of all four of these products to rise by 50% by 2050.
Electricity, often proposed as an alternative, is not economically feasible for many industrial processes. The cost of electricity per unit of energy is significantly higher than that of natural gas, often by a factor of three to five. Furthermore, with coal constituting a substantial portion of the global power mix, relying on electricity could paradoxically lead to an increase in emissions.
Cement and steel play a critical role in creating the structures that protect us from climatic elements and facilitate the construction of modern infrastructure. Emerging economies will need vast amounts of both to match the infrastructural development of the Western world. Countries like China and India, which are the largest consumers of these materials, should be encouraged to use them.
Ammonia is instrumental in creating the fertilizer that sustains modern agriculture. Its production involves a thermochemical reaction that requires natural gas (methane). Without the use of fossil fuel-based fertilizer, we would only be able to feed less than half of the world’s population, and currently, there is no viable alternative to this process.
Plastics, a direct derivative of fossil fuels, are a rapidly growing product that is propelling modern civilization forward. The use of plastics is expected to rise by 150% by 2050, according to the IEA. Without plastics, modern life would look dramatically different than it does now. An excellent example of the crucial role of plastics can be seen in the battle against COVID-19. Without plastics, the pandemic would have claimed millions of additional lives. The production of personal protective equipment, ventilators, vaccines, and even the equipment enabling remote work, all depended on plastics. Fossil fuels were the unsung heroes of the pandemic.
The notion that we can completely eliminate fossil fuels from our lives is unrealistic. Even the most aggressive transition of electricity generation sources or transportation systems to electric vehicles would not substantially reduce the overwhelming demand for fossil fuels that we anticipate in the future. This statement is grounded in physics, not politics.
Over the last century, fossil fuels have been the primary driver of increased human life and flourishing. The success of human life on Earth is intrinsically tied to the use of fossil fuels. So, the next time you hear someone suggest that we are going to eliminate fossil fuels, politely remind them of their indispensable role in our society.
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