The challenges and realities of ending fossil fuel consumption

Dr Yumnam Oken Singh *

The planet will continue to cook : Paul Krugman

Fossil fuels, including coal, petroleum, and natural gas, have been the backbone of global energy consumption for centuries, providing the world with the necessary power to drive economic growth, industrialization, and technological advancements. These hydrocarbon-based energy sources have been integral to our daily lives, contributing to electricity generation, transportation, and the production of numerous goods.

However, despite the increasing global awareness of the environmental consequences associated with fossil fuel consumption, ending their use entirely remains a complex and challenging endeavour. Fossil fuels are carbon-rich energy resources formed from the remnants of ancient plants and animals. The three primary types—coal, petroleum, and natural gas—have played pivotal roles in meeting the world’s energy demands.

Coal has been a major source of electricity, especially in developing countries. Petroleum, in its various forms, powers transportation, and natural gas is a versatile energy source used for electricity generation, heating, and industrial processes.

Beyond energy, fossil fuels contribute to the creation of a vast array of products that are deeply embedded in modern society. Petroleum, for example, yields essential products like petrol, diesel, jet fuel, kerosene, lubricants, plastics, synthetic rubber, and a multitude of chemicals used in manufacturing. It also gives us solvents used in paints, adhesives, and cleaning agents.

Bitumen/asphalt used in road construction and maintenance comes from petroleum. Other products include ethylene and propylene (building blocks for the production of a wide range of chemicals and plastics), ammonia (used in the production of fertilizers), surfactants (key ingredients in detergent and cleaning products), paraffin wax (used in the production of candles, crayons, and a multitude of industrial products), etc.

Coal is the primary source of energy in many countries, particularly developing and underdeve- loped countries. While it is primarily associated with energy, coal also produces valuable by-products such as coke for steel production, coal tar for chemical manufacturing, ammonia for fertilizer production, activated carbon for water purification and air filtration, carbon black for inks and paints, coal ash for construction materials, and naphthalene for production of plastics, resins, and dyes to name a few.

Natural gas is vital to most countries for various needs. Considered a cleaner fossil fuel, it is used in power generation, heating and cooling of residential and commercial establishments. The European countries cannot dream of a life without natural gas. Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) and Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) are considered modern and better fuels in vehicles.

Mumbai, one the largest cities in the world, is almost smoke free because of vehicles run by natural gas. Even our neighbouring State of Tripura has adopted CNG in abundance in vehicles. The Palatana Power Plant that supplies electricity to the North Eastern States of Tripura, Assam, Meghalaya, Manipur, Naga-land, and Mizoram depends on natural gas.

Most of the three wheeler auto rickshaws in the State run on CNG, a cheaper and cleaner fuel. Apart from these, natural gas is also used in the production of urea, a common fertilizer. Above all, one cannot dream of a kitchen without natural gas stoves and cylinders.

While the environmental impact of fossil fuel use is undeniable, ending their consumption globally poses formidable challenges. The world is heavily reliant on fossil fuels to meet its energy needs and many of the products mentioned earlier. Transitioning away from these sources requires the development and deployment of alternative energy technologies on an unprecedented scale, which is unrealistic and impractical for the time being.

Entire economies, industries, and millions of jobs are tied to the fossil fuel sector. Abruptly ending fossil fuel consumption, without suitable alternatives in place, risks economic instability and job losses, particularly in regions heavily dependent on the industry (including our country India). Developing and implementing alternative energy technologies, storage solutions, and infrastructure require time, investment, and research.

The existing global energy infrastructure is predominantly designed around fossil fuels, necessitating a gradual and well-planned transition. Governments worldwide face the challenge of implementing policies that balance economic interests, energy security, and environmental concerns.

Climate summits, also known as Conference of the Parties (COP) meetings, are crucial events where representatives from various countries gather to discuss and negotiate international efforts to address climate change. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is the primary international treaty guiding these summits.

The first conference (COP01, 1995) was held in Berlin (Germany) and it continues to meet regularly. The latest is COP28 held in Dubai (UAE) with opulence and a lot of fanfare. The choice of venue is significant as the UAE is the de-facto leader of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), a leading producer and exporter of petroleum.

The Convention provides a platform for parties to discuss and coordinate efforts to combat climate change. Political realities, lobbying from fossil fuel industries, and resistance to change pose significant obstacles.

The transition away from fossil fuels must be socially equitable, ensuring that communities dependent on these industries are not disproportionately affected. It requires addressing social and economic disparities associated with the transition.

While environmentalists and rights groups rightfully emphasize the urgent need to address climate change and environmental degradation, the call for an end to fossil fuel consumption may be deemed impractical.

It needs a strategic planning and implementation by Governments and organizations around the world. Striking a balance between environmental preservation and global energy demands necessitates a more pragmatic and phased approach.

Moreover, overlooking the economic and social dimensions of the transition can lead to unintended consequences, affecting vulnerable communities and exacerbating existing inequalities between the rich and poor countries.

While the imperative to reduce reliance on fossil fuels is undeniable, the complete cessation of their consumption globally is currently unfeasible. A transition toward cleaner, sustainable energy sources is essential, but it requires a well-considered and comprehensive strategy that acknowledges the economic, technological, political, and social complexities involved.

Striking a balance between environmental goals and the practicalities of global energy needs will be crucial for a successful and sustainable transition away from fossil fuels in the future.

* Dr Yumnam Oken Singh wrote this article for The Sangai Express
The writer is Assistant Professor, Central Agricultural University
This article was webcasted on December 17 2023.

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