Watt about doubling the burn?

Willis Eschenbach has a new post on Watts Up With That (WUWT) called Double the burn – Scotty. In this post he calculates how much we would need to increase our use of fossil fuels in order for the per capita energy use to be some reasonable minimum for all countries (which he sets as being the same as that of Spain or Italy). He determines that this would require increasing our fossil fuel use by 80%. He then calculates that we have at least 46 years, and probably more, of fossil fuels left at this rate and that we should just go ahead and do this, as this is the way to bring people out of poverty.

I’ve probably written about this type of reasoning before, but I always find it quite amazing. Let me acknowledge some things. It seems reasonable to argue that providing energy for developing economies will create jobs and alleviate poverty. I have no real issue with that argument. It’s also clear that fossil fuels have been a fantastic source of energy for the last 150 years or so. My issue is with the assumption that continuing to use fossil fuels is the only way to alleviate poverty in the developing world. Especially as this isn’t actually an argument for doing anything to help the developing world. The basis of this argument is that anything else will be more expensive and hence will disadvantage the developing world.

Let’s, however, get one thing out of the way right now though. Global warming is real and if we continue to add CO2 to the atmosphere at the rate (or faster than) we are now, we will be locking in at least 2 degrees of warming by the middle of the 21st century, and sea levels will almost certainly have risen by 0.5m by 2100. So, in my opinion, continuing to use fossil fuels as we are today is inadvisable (to put it mildly) and suggesting that we should use more is irresponsible. With some exceptions, people should be free to write whatever they like on whatever subject they like. However, you are also responsible for what you write. Although I don’t expect Willis Eschenbach to be held accountable when it becomes obvious that the risks associated with continued fossil fuel use are real; I do expect him to be associated with those who are held responsible (to be fair my main issue is with policy makers and the media who listen to this nonsense, rather than with the people who write it).

What I find frustrating about Willis’s basic idea is that fossil fuels aren’t free. We’ve been using then as our main energy source for 150 years and we still have billions living in poverty. If it’s the only way, why is it taking so long? It’s because it costs money to extract the oil, gas and coal. It costs money to build and operate power plants. It costs money to develop and maintain the associated infrastructure. It’s also going to get more expensive as the fossil fuels become more and more difficult to extract. If the developing world has been unable to take as much advantage of fossil fuels as the developed world in the past, it’s hard to see how they’re going to suddenly be able to take more advantage in the future.

At some basic level, all forms of energy are free. Wind, solar, tidal, wave, nuclear, geothermal. The expensive part is working out how to convert it from it’s initial form into usable energy. If the past is anything to go by (and I would imagine it is) the newer forms of energy (wind, solar, tidal, etc.) are likely to become cheaper while the older forms (fossil fuels) become more expensive. If Willis and his gang were genuinely concerned about those living in povert they would be promoting more alternative energy sources both because of the risks of climate change and because the more we invest in developing these new technologies, the cheaper they will become.

I realise that my post here is a bit simplistic and there are clearly many complications associated with how we provide energy in the future. It’s also not my area of expertise in any way, shape or form. However, suggesting that the only truly viable energy source for the future is fossil fuels is, in my opinion, even more simplistic.

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24 Responses to Watt about doubling the burn?

  1. Lars Karlsson says:

    Ouch, my head! From Willis:

    “So I’m not proposing that the folks using more energy than Spain/Italy reduce their energy consumption. Quite the contrary, I want them to continue their energy use, that’s what keeps them well-fed and clothed and healthy and able to take care of the environment and the like”.

    “Second, the world’s poor people are starving and dying for lack of cheap energy today. Driving the price of energy up and denying loans for coal-fired power plants is depriving the poor of cheap energy today, on the basis that it may help their grandchildren in fifty years. That is criminal madness.”

    That is hypocrisy!

  2. Indeed, there appears to be an enormous amount of hypocrisy associated with much of these discussions.

  3. James Westwood says:

    You are absolutely right to point to cost of infrastructure need to support fossil fuels. To spend money on this infrastructure when according to his own argument fossil fuels will run out seems like very poor planning.

    I am not sure Willis has much experience of life outside of America as he seems completely unaware of what it’s like to live in a poor country. They do not have an electricity grid. It’s not a matter of simple producing electricity, which Willis appears to believe is their only problem, you need to get it to the people as well.

    Renewable energy source such as wind and solar can be installed in rural locations where there is no access to an electricity grid. Ok, a single wind turbine will give variable amounts of electricity but it’s a lot better than nothing. It’s also a lot more maintainable than building a power plant next to the village that needs a constant supply of fuel and full time workforce. If the west want to help they can spend money researching cheaper and more efficient renewable power sources. Willis’ article is really poor and utterly fails to address the issues of electricity supply in poor countries.

    Compared to the other Willis’s articles, which is currently the sticky post, this is actually the better of them which isn’t saying much. Except that there is a distinct lack of contributors to WUWT

  4. Yes, what you say about providing energy to rural locations seems pretty obvious to me. Solar panels or wind turbines could be installed locally and the infrastructure costs would be reasonably low. There may be issues with such an approach initially (it may not work continually – would require wind/sunshine) but the technology will improve and the costs will reduce.

    As far as Willis’s other post was concerned, I was tempted to write about it, but it was so poorly written and motivated that I couldn’t really think of how to craft a response.

  5. Philip says:

    Of course you can run the argument the other way round. Although Spain/Italy have a per capita GDP a good bit lower than the USA, that is in large part due to the fact that a significant proportion of Americans are very rich – the famous 1%. Most Spaniards and Italians, at least until the recent Euro area recession, had very decent lives, economically speaking – indeed, the poor in those countries do better than the poor in the US, as their welfare systems are more generous. So it seems Americans could reduce their per capita energy consumption to Spain/Italy levels (ie, cut them by 25%, on Willis’ figues) without noticeable impact on their standard of living.

  6. Indeed, that would be an alternative way to frame the argument. Of course, it might violate the libertarian, free-market ideology that I suspect is underlying Willis’s assumptions 🙂

  7. James Westwood says:

    The country on his graph with the highest GDP per capita is Norway. They have nearly 100% renewable energy, hydro.

  8. Marco says:

    Ah, but its wealth comes in no insignificant part from oil and gas export. So Willis could, whether really appropriate or not, that fossil fuels are required to “fund” the non-fossil fuel use.

  9. Shub, that’s absurd, insulting and hypocritical. I know I may have said this before, but I no longer intend to engage with you in any way whatsoever. In my opinion, your views are objectionable, your understanding of this topic is largely non-existent, and your behaviour is childish.

  10. Skeptikal says:

    Shub, I don’t think wotts understands the ramifications of the policy he supports. I mean seriously, we’re talking about someone who considers wind power one of the “newer forms of energy”.

    Wotts, your new form of energy has quite a history… you might like to read up on it sometime.

    As steam power developed, the uncertain power of the wind became less and less economic, and we are left today with a tiny fraction of the elegant structures that once extracted power from the wind. These remaining windmills, scattered throughout the world, are a historic, and certainly very photogenic, reminder of a past technological age.



  11. Fragmeister says:

    And when the oil runs out, Norwegians will be smiling, Willis’s fellow Americans less so.

  12. andrew adams says:

    I mean seriously, we’re talking about someone who considers wind power one of the “newer forms of energy”.

    Wow, are your powers of comprehension really that weak? Clearly Wotts was referring to “new” sources of power in the context of electicity generation and so it’s perfectly reasonable to mention wind.

  13. andrew adams says:

    You say your post may be simplistic, well the question of how to move people in the developing world out of poverty is hard enough in itself, finding ways to reduce global CO2 emissions is also hard, finding a way to do both simultaneously is extremely complex. So I think you can be forgiven if you haven’t managed to nail it in a blog post.

    But your argument is still a hell of a lot more sophisticated than Willis’s. The insistence of fake skeptics of framing poverty in the developing world purely in terms of access to cheap (fossil fuel) energy is so simplistic one can only assume they are either entirely ignorant of the issues involved or are just trolling. As you say, we have had cheap fossil fuels for decades but we still have hundreds of millions, billions even, still living in poverty.

    Their faux concern for the poor might be slightly more convincing if they were willing to consider that it is the poor who are most at risk from climate change.

  14. Thanks. It is indeed complicated. What frustrates me is that the argument is almost never about actually doing anything to help the poor. It appears to be a standard libertarian, free-market type of argument – we need to leave it to the market so that those who are poor can take advantage of the most efficient, cheapest product. It hasn’t really worked for the last century and the recent credit crunch would seem to indicate that moving too far towards the libertarian ideal simply allows the wealthy to get richer, rather than allowing the poor to start participating. What’s more, I don’t think anyone who is concerned is arguing that we should turn off all fossil fuel based power system immediately. The argument is to start developing and using alternatives so that we can reduce our fossil fuel use over the next few decades and avoid continuing to add excessive amounts of CO2 to the atmosphere.

  15. Lars Karlsson says:

    Acutally, what fake skeptics are doing is framing poverty in the developing world in terms of access to cheap (fossil fuel) energy for themselves.

  16. Yes, that seems right. It it’s too expensive for us, how will the developing world cope? History may well look back on right-wing, free-market, libertarian ideology as being what most damaged society in the 21st century.

  17. James Westwood says:

    @Shub Niggurath:

    I thought climate change was a global conspiracy to install a new socialist world government?

    Contrary to your opinion about me when I was younger I spent 2 years living in a town in southern Sudan where there was no electricity or running water. Willis’ article from my experience fails entirely to address the problems in developing countries. The people in Khartoum do have access to electricity so applying the Willis conjecture the people of Khartoum need only increase the amount of CO2 they produce per capita and they will see their standard of living sky rocket. Maybe leaving the lights on or boiling the kettle unnecessarily will do the trick?

    I, probably rather generously, assumed Willis might be talking about the real problem of getting electricity to those who had no access at all. We can all be idealistic and say everyone should have access to a German style smart grid and then just sit back and enjoy cold pina coladas but this is no more helpful than listening to a beauty queen contestant announce she believe in world peace. Who doesn’t? The problem is achieving that. I would see local sourced renewable energy as an important step towards achieving this. In China they have used solar heating and solar cells to provide energy to rural communities. They are, I believe, the largest producers and consumers of solar power in the world which does seem to support the idea of using local sourced renewable energy as a solution.

  18. andrew adams says:

    The thing is, the impact of efforts to reduce emissions on developing countries is a perfectly legitimate concern, which is one of the reasons it is proving so hard to nail down a new international agreement. That’s why there are proposals such as the Green Climate Fund. To suggest that we are somehow unaware or unconcerned about this issue is just nonsense, and I certainly don’t see any constructive suggestions from the “skeptics”.

    It’s worth pointing out that here in the UK opposition to action on climate change and opposition to maintaining levels of aid to developing countries tend to go hand in hand.

  19. Mr Westwood,
    My response was to wotts. I thought the indenting makes this clear.

    In the West, the development of energy supply and distribution and modes of governance and their improvements went hand in hand. In other places, this hasn’t been the case. The fossil fuel companies know this the best. Just drawing out oil from the ground and dumping it onto a market that has no means of disposing it produces a price crash. Plonking energy supplies in the midst of poverty will not change anything overnight.

    But, nevertheless, access to energy has a crucial role in improvement of governance and destruction of despotism (of whatever kind). Access to petrol/gas and electricity produces a more enlightened populace, which in turn breaks down previous barriers. Only fossil fuels can accomplish this within the space of 2-3 generations, i.e., within a space of time where you will see transformative change within your own lifetime.

    Sitting around less energy dense sources will not make this happen.

    Fossil fuel consumption is the engine of human progress. If this progress results in installation of windmills and solar panels, why not? Energy in all forms should be welcomed. But, if the solar panel or cooker relegates the individual to the same state as before its adoption, it should be thrown away. Piped gas, electric stoves, LPG cylinders are all better alternatives to cooking with firewood and bramble. Nor do they require the user to sit outside in the sun.

  20. Martin says:

    I’d second what the post says.

    I’d add that it’s easy to recommend fossil fuel based energy generation if one assumes emissions not to cause any costs, especially for poor countries:


    Where I slightly deviate from some commenters is the argument about wind/solar in rural areas. While this would possibly alleviate the most extreme energy scarcity in some areas, it answers another question althogether. What this is about is making the status quo tolerable (like development aid), which is, of course, important and a strong argument for foreign aid (to accomplish such projects). However, it does not answer the question how to actually get out of the status quo, which is what Eschenbach is talking about, I think (though he gets it backwards). Necessary underpinnings for economic growth (like centralization of power, well-defined and enforced property rights, etc) might, for example, be read about in the research by Acemoglu/robinson (popularized in “Why Nations Fail”). For starters, their rebuttal to a rather silly critique by Bill Gates might be interesting in this regard:


    Also, Ken Opalo had a recent blog entry about energy security in a growing Africa that I think is of interest w/r/t this discussion:


    This is elucidating because it talks about some actual concerns, rather than wbout what usually white men perceive as concerns. (All too often one gets trapped in cheap armchair philosophizing about what Africa needs or wants or should want. But I generalize, perhaps I am the only one substituting Africa for “poor countries” (as I did here) and tending to be overly influenced by the horrible images of the Biafra famine whenever it comes to poor countries (sic!).)

  21. Thanks, Martin. Interesting comments, and I largely agree. You’re probably correct about the rural wind/solar in that it might help to improve how people live, but doesn’t do much to change the status quo. Even though Willis’s basic argument might be about changing the status quo, my impression is that it is based on a sense that it would happen through the magic of the free-market, not because he’s actually arguing that we should do anything special to help people out of poverty. I may be wrong and maybe I’m unfairly characterising his argument, but that’s the impression I have. I’m also not wholly against free-market principles, simply that it’s not the panacea that some seem to think.

    Something that I was considering after I wrote this and that may be consistent with what you’re saying is that we shouldn’t be assuming that what’s worked for us (the modern developed world) would work everywhere. It’s a great pity that more aren’t seeing what we’re undergoing as an opportunity to develop new technologies and also to develop new types of infrastructure etc. that might be more suitable for the developing world, rather than imposing what worked for us onto the rest of the world (I don’t really like using the term “us” and “them” but you probably know what I mean).

  22. Watt is the matter with these people? Do they have a death wish? The human emission is six times faster than the worst flood basalt at peak. Hell, why not just make it twelve?

    They need a new Dr. Strangelove — aka how I grew to love the burn.


  23. Rachel says:

    My conclusion is that Willis is a very unimaginative individual. There are lots of ways to access energy that don’t require fossil fuels. The lights on my bike use pedal power for instance. It’s also possible to improve energy efficiency substantially without any loss of living standards. In fact, I would say living standards would actually improve with simple changes.

    Compare Australia with the UK: both countries have a similar income per head but Australia has much higher energy use. I have lived in both countries and part of the reason for this (in my view which could be wrong) is Australian cities were built for cars rather than people. They are urban sprawls with enormous houses on large sections. Most UK cities however are compact and walkable as they were established before the invention of the automobile. Houses in the UK are smaller but easier to heat and cool and so cheaper to maintain. I’m sure my carbon footprint is smaller in a mid-terraced home with no car than in a detached car-dependent house. The smaller home offers better quality of life in opinion too as being able to walk everywhere is rewarding economically (I don’t have to pay for petrol or bus fares and so there is more money to spend on other things) and it is improves health and wellbeing. I’m not saying this is for everyone, but in Australia and New Zealand, there is little option but car-dependence and high electricity bills. So when Willis says he doesn’t want to drag the top half down, he’s ignoring those in the top half who want to use less but are prevented because of urban planning decisions that choose cars over people and mcmansions over terraced homes.

    The other thing that I rarely see mentioned is nuclear energy. Why aren’t people embracing this more? I know people have a fear of nuclear meltdown, but the risk is small and surely preferable to burning all the fossil fuels we have left and the climate crisis.

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