Our fossil fuelled dependence

The Independent hailed yesterday that Sweden was poised to become the first fossil fuel free nation in Europe. Intrigued though slightly suspicious, I clicked on the link. The article discusses Sweden going fossil fuel free. Though it means in regard to electricity generation only. Clearly a very positive step, and the least all countries should be achieving. Indeed, all industrialised nations should’ve achieved that already in order to help avoid drastic climate change. But better late than never.

The article lauds Sweden for managing to go fossil fuel free in the next few decades. Yet worryingly the article has overlooked the very basic fact that electricity generation only provides a fraction of total fossil fuel usage. A large fraction, but by estimates still less than half. So why doesn’t the article discuss this? Or does it buy into the notion that Sweden is going fossil fuel free? Perhaps it’s a sign of our societal lack of understanding of energy and fossil fuels.

As a culture I don’t think we realise the true extent of our addiction to fossil fuels, and of course in particular oil. A comment under the article, in response to someone who tried to highlight this in the case of plastics, said that we can produce plastics from plant based oils and recycle rather than burn plastic to keep carbon out of the atmosphere. Highlighting once again how perhaps many of us buy into the notion that all we need to do, to avoid catastrophe, is swap our current materials for something new and recycle. It’s a pervasive belief. Essentially this belief boils down to the belief that business will continue more or less as usual. We can just substitute processes and materials and increase efficiency, just like neoliberal economics teaches us to.

How are we going to manufacture let alone run cars without fossil fuels and precious resources? How are going to maintain the infrastructure required? What about our agricultural dependence on fossil fuels from pesticides and fertilisers, to transportation and packaging? What about the embodied energy (all of the energy required to develop, manufacture and transport a product – from mining, to delivery and sale) of all the ‘consumer’ products that we import.

These are just a few examples of our dependence on fossil fuels.

So unless Sweden is going to address all of these and more there is no way it is going fossil fuel free. Granted electricity generation is an important contributing factor to climate change and resource depletion, so reducing their need for fossil fuel there is a very important step, but it leaves them far short of being fossil fuel free as The Independent article discusses.

You could go further too, as there is an embodied energy in the renewable energy technologies themselves that will have come from fossil fuels. Plus you then have the maintenance of the renewable energy infrastructure – which will undoubtedly be dependent on fossil fuels.

Some may comment saying that we can drive electric cars, farm organically, cycle more, buy local food and so on. Great I’m all for those. But each of those has their own set of problems to be overcome. And we’re a long way from being able to feed the world not only organically, but also without the aid of fossil fuels. Permaculture provides a potential solution for this, but we’re decades, at best, away from a food system revolution on the scale needed.

Equally so, many like to think that because they’ve bought an electric car (often brand new, there’s still not that many available second-hand) they’re doing their bit for the environment. In reality, they may not be, it’s more complicated than that. Depending on the car previously used and the car being bought, they may have been better keeping their older oil-powered car. The key again lies in the concept of Embodied Energy (sometimes called Emergy). A large amount of energy (and thus CO2 emissions) is used in the manufacturing of the car. This article explores this question in more detail.

The point of this post is not to denigrate the importance of Sweden making that pledge but to highlight what I believe is our collective misunderstanding of energy and fossil fuels. Until six months ago I knew very little, and I propose that most don’t. But this is what we need to be teaching in schools, and be seeing in the media and on TV. It’s not an overstatement to say that our future survival as a species depends on us changing our relationship with fossil fuels. We’re already committed to a certain level of dangerous climate change, as Professor of Energy and Climate Change at Manchester University Kevin Anderson shows us in this excellent, yet daunting presentation, although it can get far far worse if we do too little. So there is plenty of motivation to do more.

And an important first step is getting clear on all of the ways we’re dependent on fossil fuels, so we know what we need to change, to transition to a world no longer dependent on them. So let’s stop telling ourselves nice, but ultimately naive stories about the future, and get real. Huge change lies ahead.



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