“Why explore for oil?” The Economist. April 2nd, 2010: “The fundamental problem is this: there is a finite amount of fossil fuel. The more of it we find and burn, the more carbon we put into the atmosphere, and the more severe the greenhouse effect becomes. Once the carbon is in the atmosphere, it stays there. If we want to limit climate change, what we have to do, one way or another, is to leave fuels in the ground wherever possible, not find and burn them.
There’s a tendency to lose sight of this fact because of the rhetoric of green energy and carbon offsets. Certainly, building more wind turbines reduces CO2 emissions below what they would have otherwise been, assuming the same demand for electric power. But if you’re looking at the cold reckoning of CO2 parts per million, the atmosphere doesn’t care that after you drove 100 kilometres in your car, you went out and biked 100 kilometres. It will care if you plant a tree and help fix a little carbon, but not much. Once emitted, CO2 stays in the air for 50 to 200 years. We can speed that up a little with things like carbon capture and sequestration, reforestation and so on. But as James Hansen and his colleagues wrote in a 2008 paper, if we want to hold CO2 below 450 ppm, we’d probably have to completely stop burning coal (except with carbon capture) by 2030. A sustained CO2 level of 450 ppm, Mr Hansen and his colleagues write, will probably mean an ice-free planet.
We simply can’t afford to burn all the planet’s fossil fuels. Given that, where is it most likely to be possible to leave fossil fuels in the ground? As with all questions of resource conservation, it is the rich countries that are most likely to be able to conserve. In poor countries like Indonesia or Nigeria, a combination of indigence and government weakness makes it almost impossible to keep the population from using up even obviously limited resources like forests and wild animals. It’s only the world’s wealthy, industrialised democracies that have been successful at preserving their natural resources. And none more so than America, the birthplace of environmentalism. The world’s richest country should have the easiest time of shifting to alternative energy sources and leaving some of that carbon lying in the ground. It’s very discouraging that political considerations would push it to do otherwise.