Sustainable Fossil Fuels : The Unusual Suspect in the Quest for Clean and Enduring Energy, Mark Jaccard, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, U.K., 2005.
[OK, its not new, but even though its been around for over two years, I wanted to bring this book to your attention because it has helped me to seperate what belongs in this blog and what doesn't. It addresses some good questions about what we mean by sustainable and what that mean in a practical sense.]
There is no doubt that renewable power, energy efficiency and (most) biofuels fit within the scope of sustainable energy as defined for this blog. However, do fossil fuels and fossil fuel providers also belong? Do they belong in any definition of sustainable energy?
In his 2005 book Dr. Mark Jaccard focuses squarely on this question. And he concludes that fossil fuels should be a key part of our future clean, sustainable energy system .... but with strong caveats on their production and consumption. In doing so he provides some useful criteria for assessing the sustainability, or lack thereof, of fossil fuel providers.
Dr. Jaccard, is part of Simon Fraser University’s School of Resource & Environmental Management and a former Chair of the British Columbia Utilities Commission. Long an advocate of energy efficiency and renewable power, he admits to a significant shift in his views as a result of his research in recent years.
This becomes apparent early in the book when he characterizes the current consensus among many with concerns for sustainability and the environment:
“more and more people believe we must quickly wean ourselves from fossil fuels – oil, natural gas and coal - to save the planet from environmental catastrophe, incessant oil conflicts and economic collapse.”
Dr. Jaccard believes that this view is misguided. While explaining why he takes the time to point out why our current system is not sustainable, define what a sustainable energy system must achieve and outline what must change to get us there.
In a nutshell, he argues that with more than 500 years of conventional and unconventional fossil fuel resources available, it would be more cost effective to address the environmental effects of fossil fuel use than to discard their use altogether. In particular, he suggests that technologies to allow zero-emission use of fossil fuels are possible in the near-future. By extending our dependence on fossil fuels into the next century, we would be allowing renewable energy sources and alternative energy sources the time needed to address issues with low energy density, intermittency and inconvenient location that limit their use today.
Some might consider his conclusions a slap in the face to efforts to address global climate change. However, he sets some significant criteria for their continued use.
“A sustainable energy system must have negligible impacts and risks of extreme events and any negative effects that occur should be ones from which natural systems can fully recover in a reasonable time.”
This is a detailed presentation of the technical issues that will govern our future energy directions and a good antidote to some of the less thoughtful hype surrounding alternative energy investment today. To make his case more concisely for less patient readers Dr. Jaccard includes a synopsis of the book as an appendix.
While I believe the book to be worthwhile reading and a useful analysis of the issues before us, I think that Jaccard maybe oversimplifying the effort required to get to zero-emission fossil fuel use. He could also be accused of skating a bit too quickly over the fact that zero-emissions doesn’t mean sustainable. Mountain top removal for coal and the vast swaths of land affected by oil sands development won’t be mitigated by emissions reductions.
Interstingly, while Dr. Jaccard appears optimistic about our ability to achieve a sustainable energy future using fossil fuels, he closes the book with a much less positive statement about sustainability in general.
“Unfortunately, however, clean energy is a necessary but not sufficient condition for a sustainable global economy. Indeed clean and low cost energy would free people to live and travel where they want, and to consume as much as they want, which could intensify the pressure on valued ecosystems and the depletion of other non-renewable resources. A sustainable fossil fuel future does not guarantee a sustainable human presence on this shrinking planet.”