‘There’s cheap, green energy out there’

Mark Jaccard’s advice on climate change, the imminent exhaustion of fossil fuels and the end of civilisation as we know it is: “Don’t panic.” But he is not an out-of-touch climate-change denier. He is an expert on long-term energy issues who, for 10 years, advised the Chinese government on energy policy. Even the greenest environmentalists listen to what he has to say.

Jaccard’s starting point is: “The scientists are right. The risks are real.” His job is to assess those risks and model solutions. He looks forward to new technologies, but also sees a future for “King Coal and his royal cousins, crude oil and natural gas”. There is, he maintains, “life in the old king yet”.

He sees no contradiction in continued global growth and, if the right measures are brought in, the reduction of planet-threatening greenhouse gases. If he’s right, Jaccard offers a way through Lovelockian doom and the Texas oil baron “let it rip” ethos that United States President George W Bush brought to the White House.

“The driving issue for me is the global energy system,” says Jaccard. “It is 16 times larger today than 100 years ago, and is likely to be at least three or four times larger in 100 years from now. Look, for example, at developing countries where people in the poorer areas might be using half a gigajoule per person per year. In the US, it’s 300 gigajoules.

“Ideally we should get those poorer people to at least 30 gigajoules per year, which will provide an acceptable level of existence. And if you do that, even with dramatic efficiency gains, you end up with a three- or four-fold increase in the total size of the energy system. The key question is, do we want that growth to be continuing to emit urban air pollutants, regional air pollutants, global air pollutants … or are we going to act on it right away?”

What are the technological fixes that can stabilise things? “We have devices out there already; I’ll come to them in a minute. But policies have proved very difficult to enact. You have to drastically increase energy prices and beef up regulations for the whole energy sector. And that’s difficult because innovators, in a free-enterprise environment, are producing new technologies that use a lot of energy and allegedly improve our lives all the time — everything from massage chairs to outdoor patio heaters. That’s going to continue to drive energy demand. You can’t stop it.

“But with the right technologies, and with the right policy driving them, you can switch fuels. You can move from oil to coal and from fossil fuels to nuclear and renewables. We’ve figured out how to prevent pollution: we’ve done it with coal, we’ve done it with particulates, we’ve done it with nitrogen oxide, we’ve done it sulphur emissions.”

Why is coal so important in Jaccard’s global model? “Half the energy on the planet is generated with coal and there will probably be much more in the future. The Chinese are putting 50 000 to 60 000MW into coal generation every year.

“We need to move quickly to prevent the emission of more greenhouse gases. Coal certainly remains one of the major options. Nuclear and renewables are the others. But if you stick with fossil fuels, you can get the energy from them and capture the carbon. The technologies for doing that have existed for decades.

“I’ll give you a couple of examples. One is coal gasification [the process of converting coal into combustible gases]. The Germans figured that out in the 1920s and, during the war, the gasoline that ran German tanks and trucks was coal-based. South Africans adopted that technology during the apartheid era. We, too, can use that technology to gasify coal and convert it into a hydrogen-rich stream from which we can capture all the carbon dioxide (CO2). We can then pump the CO2 deep into the Earth.

“That technology has been used in enhanced oil and gas recovery, where you inject CO2 down a pipe, deep into the geological strata to increase the pressure in a well. The risks associated with this are small. We have these technologies.”

Does it all make financial sense, though? “People often say, ‘We can’t move to these technologies because they are not economic.’ Of course they are not economic. We have what economists call an externality problem. People are being allowed to use the atmosphere as a free waste receptacle. We need policy enacted to make it expensive to send carbon into the atmosphere. The Europeans are leading the way here now, with your emission cap and trade system that came into play last year. But, of course, we need the Americans onside.”

Jaccard’s most counter-conventional proposition is that the planet is not running out of gas, and that we are nowhere near the peak of potential extraction. He pokes fun at the apocalyptic tendency, and their blood-curdling graphs showing civilisation toppling into decades of “anarchy” and “savagery” as the oil dries up.

“They’re only talking about conventional oil. But we have unconventional oil. My country, Canada, has reserves in oil sands that exceed everything that Arabia has. And we have unconventional natural gas. We have biomass — the Brazilians are making fuel out of sugar cane. When you string these together and add the unused conventional oil, we have supplies that can last for centuries.”

How much does a barrel of oil have to cost before the unconventional sources become viable? $100? $200? “No, $35 a barrel. At that cost, a new coal gasification plant becomes profitable. At the moment, billions of dollars are being invested in the Canadian oil sand. But for any investor there’s a fear that the price will tumble back to the $30 range or lower.”

Given these scenarios, is Jaccard optimistic? “On the technology side, I’m very optimistic. It’s there. On the policy side, I’m not exactly pessimistic, but that’s where the hard work needs to be done.” — Â

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