I’ve been following the energy discussions actively for a decade now. Despite some incremental improvements, the debate goes round and round much the same way as it did in 2007: everyone agrees in public that we need to quit fossil fuels, but when it comes to the crucial “how to” part, we all descent to bickering among ourselves. To “celebrate” my anniversary, here are two fallacies I fear explain the majority of the clean energy discussion and help explain a lot about the mess we’re in.
As a reminder: unless bioenergy carbon capture and storage (BECCS), a largely speculative and almost totally untested technology, performs exactly as world energy system modelers assume, we’d need pretty much to stop all carbon dioxide emissions from energy generation by 2040 – globally – in order to stay at Paris targets and not drown several poor countries. After following the topic for almost half of what time is now remaining, I’m not optimistic about our chances.
FALLACY 1. [My favorite technology] advances by leaps and bounds, but the competition is obsolete.
The first fallacy of energy discussions is that our own favorite technologies advance by leaps and bounds while the competition is nothing but useless dinosaurs. To find examples of this fallacy in action, look no further than any energy discussion in history: the chances are that you WILL find a person explaining that [her/his favorite technology] is leapfrogging the competition, which by the way is totally out of date and can only be sustained by unfair, outdated practices and incompetence – if not outright malice – of politicians and other decision-makers.
However, this fallacy forgets one crucial lesson of evolution: you need to run simply to stay in the same place, because the competition is also evolving at the same time as you.
This “red queen effect” is very real, but almost invariably more or less totally ignored by supporters of some particular technology. I believe the reason for this bias is simple enough: we humans have a very strong tendency to form our opinions about things and concepts based on how often we hear about them – and we tend to notice mostly things that interest us already. Someone who is enthusiastic about [energy technology] will naturally tend to follow news from that field much more intensely than developments in other fields. Furthermore, the enthusiast may not even notice related developments in yet other fields that nevertheless may have impacts on the competitive position of technologies s/he doesn’t actively follow. What does the enthusiast see, as a result?
The enthusiast will see and hear almost daily about advances and developments in her favorite technological field. Every day brings something new, as trade presses and news sites try to find something new to cover. At the same time, she will hear about competing technologies mostly by one of two ways: either when a major, newsworthy breakthrough occurs, or when the downsides of the competition are treated in a derisive manner in the enthusiast’s “own” information bubble. But since newsworthy breakthroughs are very rare, particularly in established technologies, the enthusiast would see positive news only very rarely.
The enthusiast wouldn’t be a human if such biased information flow didn’t affect his or her beliefs and assessments of the technology options. ANY technology one tends to follow closely WILL look as if it’s advancing almost daily in leaps and bounds, while ANY technology one doesn’t follow may seem to plod along without much improvements at all.
But this doesn’t mean that the other technology doesn’t advance. Even when we are talking about so-called “mature” technologies, there is often room for incremental behind the scenes improvement. (Case in point: between 1977 and 2016, nuclear power capacity in the United States alone has increased by over 7300 megawatts without adding a single new reactor. The increase is solely due to incremental improvements of existing reactors.) The improvements are likely to be more difficult to achieve and the gains per improvement are likely to be smaller, but the very, very big problem here – at least for those of us who’d like to overhaul the existing energy system – is that the competitive advantage enjoyed by legacy energy sources can be quite effectively prolonged through relatively small performance or cost improvements. The techno-optimists generally point to improvement rates (say, annual cost decreases) as a proof that eventually, as the cost curves of new and old technology converge, the new (and, it is assumed, otherwise superior) technology will totally, and rapidly, supplant the old.
While this line of thinking does have a point, it does not follow that technological changes are as rapid or straightforward as techno-optimists are prone to imply. For one thing, it is not given that cost decreases of [favorite energy source] will continue as hoped: every technology, including [your favorite] is likely to reach a plateau where further improvements become more and more expensive. Furthermore, cost measurements may be incomplete or paint a biased picture of the situation: for instance, if measured by costs per ton-kilometer, transporting goods by car was considerably cheaper than transporting them by horse in 1950s Finland, but horses nevertheless remained an important source of motive power until late 1960s, because motor vehicles couldn’t pull timber from snowy forests the way the horses could. Likewise, energy transitions are often about more than just the cost per megawatt hour produced. Even if we ignore arguably more arbitrary preferences and arguably arbitrary local politics (I say “arguably,” because these may be surprisingly hard constraints), features such as security of supply, matching production to demand and influence of ownership structure to overall costs and investments needed can present challenges that the simplistic techno-optimism and boosterism generally prefer to ignore.
Furthermore, energy technologies in particular do not exist in isolation from each other. If one technology gets cheaper, chances are that the development affects the costs of other technologies as well. Energy storage in particular is an example of a technology that, if cheap and scalable storage technology is perfected, may yet provide surprises for those who assume that its arrival will sound the death knell of all non-renewable energy sources. Even technological developments that do not have multiple applications have an impact: if the demand for oil falls because electric cars become more widespread, the laws of supply and demand suggest that the price of oil will also decrease. This decrease in price will see oil used more in what were previously only marginally profitable uses for the liquid, and as a result, total oil use may not fall quite as much as we might hope.
What all this means, in short, is that technology advocates in general are inevitably prone to assuming that their favorite technology is just better and advances faster than its competition. This is understandable, and advocates of competing technologies should keep this in mind: those who disagree are unlikely to be stupid, much less malicious – they just have a different bias and have been reared in a different information bubble.
However, if the technology advocates wish to improve the accuracy of their estimates, they would do well to make a honest attempt to understand their biases, including the possibility that their beliefs about their most favored and least favored technologies may be influenced simply by the information diet they’re on. It isn’t wise to assume that the other sector is manned by dinosaurs without motivation or skills needed to compete. It is equally unwise to assume that the other side can only compete through questionable practices or outright deceit. It is possible, but unlikely, that conspiracy by the other side is the reason why your favorite technology isn’t advancing like the most optimistic forecasts believed it would: the far more likely reason is that the world around you isn’t standing still. Likewise, unless you have solid proof that your side is totally unmotivated by thoughts of financial gain, it would be wiser to assume that your side is about as likely as the other side to use spin doctors and engage in questionable practices every now and then.
Finally, one should keep in mind what is likely happen when the techno-optimist predictions fail to materialize. Enthusiasts who have been immersed in their own information bubble will have difficulties understanding why the technology that had been advancing so nicely would stumble against entrenched, seemingly stagnant status quo that the cheerleaders of [favorite technology] assured was ripe for total disruption. The simple, obvious and wrong explanation for this failure will in every case be a conspiracy theory: the [favorite technology] failed because fossil fuel interests/car manufacturers/nuclear industry/environmental groups (delete as appropriate) were in cahoots with the government and hatched a diabolical plot to bring about the downfall of [the favorite technology] for reasons of private gain (or some even more nefarious purpose).
FALLACY 2. We “must” stop fossil fuel use.
The second and perhaps even more pernicious energy fallacy is that we “must” quit fossil fuels. Don’t get me wrong: I sincerely believe we really need to get off of our fossil fuel addiction and quickly reduce the share of fossil fuels in world’s energy consumption from the current 85 or so percent to as close as zero as possible. However, I would advise making the understandable but unfounded leap and assuming that just because this is what would very likely be in humanity’s long-term interests, or even because a failure to do so may very well doom our civilization if not our species, we somehow “must” stop burning fossil fuels for energy. The need to stop fossil fuels does not, unfortunately, mean that we will stop using them. Fossil fuels are simply so convenient energy sources, and pessimistic estimates notwithstanding, we seem to have enough to cook the planet several times over before they actually “run out” (and even then, it’s more about fossil fuels becoming too costly to extract rather than them actually running out).
So there is actually no pressing necessity for stopping fossil fuel use. On the contrary, having and using fossil fuels is still very much a precondition for wealth generation, no matter what the boosters of alternative energy technologies claim. The poor world in particular is pulling itself out from poverty largely (although, fortunately, not entirely) by the same means we used previously: by building a lot of new energy-to-wealth converters (from power plants to cars to airplanes), using the cheapest and most reliable energy sources available. In most cases, this means coal, gas, and oil.
Sure, this may well mean that the world – and these poor countries in particular – will eventually be hit hard by the ravages of climate gone wild. But as so many prognosticators have noted before, the problem here is that in our rather stone-age brains, the benefits of using fossil fuels now very much outrank the distant risks that may come later, if at all. Any single fossil fuel user has very little impact on climate change, so it’s not in her interests to greatly curb her own use – a classic tragedy of the commons.
Nevertheless, these days it is very hard to find an energy debate that DOESN’T assume, at least tacitly, that there is some sort of an externally imposed necessity that all but guarantees that fossil fuel use will stop. For just one example, a relatively recent and otherwise excellent treatise on scarcities by Lähde (2013, only in Finnish though, sorry – but if you can, read it!) assumed throughout the book that climate change sets a hard constraint on our fossil fuel use and that, as a consequence, we cannot continue the high-energy civilization the way we’ve used to.
Such criticism is of course correct: we cannot continue burning stuff forever. But such statements also miss the point: we are almost certainly capable of burning stuff until well after we’ve essentially demolished the climate system. There are no hard physical limits here: only what we as a civilization are willing to tolerate. And as the sorry history of climate change mitigation shows, we seem to be willing to tolerate quite a bit of future risk in exchange for the goods today. In fact, there is nothing new in the conflation of “must” with “will” regarding the end of fossil fuels: nuclear energy pioneers used the sooner-or-later depletion of fossil fuels as a major selling point, Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell voiced their concerns, and in 1820s Britain, quite a few engineers were certain that the future would not belong to steam power with its exhaustible fuel reserves, but to clean, abundant, inexhaustible water power.
Not acknowledging the facts and even tacitly assuming that burning fossil fuels WILL stop because it SHOULD stop, even for the purposes of morale building, can lead us into a dangerous territory. If everyone around you agrees that fossil fuel use WILL cease, isn’t the climate fight as good as won? All that remains is to wait for the final victory of the [energy technology you prefer].
But if, as it seems, the “will” part comes only long after the climate system is already ruined, what then?
This fallacy of the ought is probably more than any other single fallacy responsible for the extremely odd debates that characterize the energy discussions in particular. Anyone who overhears the advocates for [energy technology A] and [energy technology B] locked in a fierce debate about whether [technology A] or [technology B] is the better choice would be forgiven for thinking that the old king has already died and what the two heirs are debating is how to divide up the realm. But any look at current energy statistics shows that even though the old king is old and may well be sick, he sure as heck doesn’t look like it. As noted, fossil fuels still account for about 85 percent of global energy supply, pretty much as they did back in 1990 when we first became worried about climate change, and the largest growth in actual energy generation (note: not the same thing as energy generation capacity) over the last decade has been by – king coal.
One of the clearest signs that this fallacy is being committed is when anyone says that if only fossil fuels had to pay for the “external costs” they cause, then [the favored energy technology] would win handsomely. This is again an entirely correct yet almost totally pointless observation, a truism if you will, and it is generally something you will see as a defence of an energy source that cannot compete with fossil fuels under current rules. Again, don’t get me wrong: it is obviously certain that if fossil fuels were to cost more, then the competitive situation of alternative sources would improve. I also heartily support making fossil fuels pay for the damages they cause. But the more interesting question here is WHY exactly the prices do not yet reflect the true costs? Might it be not so much because fossil fuel producers have bribed the politicians (although that certainly has an impact) but more because everyone deep down suspects that our society would essentially cease to function if the total costs of our addiction – sorry, primary energy sources – were to be included in their prices? Therefore, the real question is a practical one: how to make fossil fuel users pay? Even more so, how to make them pay the full costs and not just some marginal amounts? And is that even possible right now, given that there is no real pressing necessity to stop using fossil fuels, while there are still great benefits to be gained, particularly in the poor countries?
I no longer believe that high enough carbon taxes, for instance, are going to happen simply through wishing them into existence, nor are they likely to be enacted (at least, not soon enough) through political action alone, although the latter is absolutely essential for any decarbonization strategy. What seems to be needed is a simultaneous push along all the fronts to put pressure on fossil fuels from multiple directions. We need to simultaneously work to provide alternatives to burning while working hard to increase the costs of burning, and even this strategy might turn out to be quite difficult.
Taken together, these two fallacies would seem to go a long way towards explaining why the energy debate is as screwed as it is. Those who are concerned about the state of the planet allow themselves to be convinced that simply because stopping fossil fuel use would be highly convenient for the long-term survival of humanity, fossil fuel use MUST and WILL stop some time soon. At the same time, techno-optimists, the another vocal and influential group in technology discussions that often overlaps with the first, may have become biased simply by their commendable diligence in following the news of their favored energy technologies.
We don’t even have to go to more intractable problems, such as the questions of identity, to explain why the debate runs its accustomed course even as the world around us heats up and burns. We are simply convincing ourselves that fossil fuel use WILL become uncompetitive and stop very soon, and that we have the luxury of waiting for the Messiah technology that will solve what small problems may remain.
Unfortunately for all of us, this is a recipe for inaction.
Lähde, V. (2013). Niukkuuden maailmassa. Helsinki: niin & näin.