We believe the key to a better future is listening to and understanding the perspectives of others. This week, we asked Michal C. Moore, Professor and Senior Fellow, The School of Public Policy, University of Calgary, to share his thoughts on the concept of 'unburnable carbon' — a term that refers to fossil fuel reserves that might, if combusted, cause dangerous climate change.
We thank Michal for taking the time to answer our questions. The views, opinions and positions expressed are those of the author and don't necessarily reflect those of Suncor.
I was asked to discuss the concept of 'unburnable carbon', a provocative, if technically inaccurate phrase that is being used widely in various public discussions.
The idea behind leaving some fraction of the remaining store of burnable, combustible hydrocarbons in the ground to limit concentrations of greenhouse gases and improve air quality is notionally attractive. In the conversation though, we have to remember that some fraction of waste is the inevitable consequence of generating power and transportation. Given this, can we justify continuing to rely on substances that have the potential to fundamentally alter climate and quality of life?
The answer is fairly obvious; over the course of more than a century we built a society around thermal energy resources. They are plentiful, cheap and fairly widely distributed world-wide. The irony is that consumption of crude oil, seemingly without restraint, is akin to a deadly sin—gluttony—consuming more than we need wastefully.
Why waste anything, come to think of it? In the case of carbon-based fuels, especially in terms of our current infrastructure, we need them to get around and energize the myriad of appliances and engines of commerce we rely on. For economists, overconsumption implies that these resources are underpriced. Not that people should simply pay more, but we don't pay the full cost of the externalities, such as emissions.
There is a hotly debated and passionate discourse on the right course to take. Opponents of using 'as much as we can get' hold that the oil sands, for instance, should simply stay in the ground. That's a nice tag line, but at the end of the day, classifying oil sands products or coal simply as dangerous commodities that should not be exploited, in spite of continuing demand worldwide for the fuels and chemicals, i.e. ‘unburnable carbon’, is seductive, simplistic and wrong.
Technically, unconventional oil resources will be developed at the 'appropriate' time when the blend of economics, politics and technology is right. Do it cheaply, allowing for lots of waste and byproducts, and society will ultimately say ‘stop'. Change the price and regulate strictly and consistently, and industry will find alternatives. Change the demand for liquid fuels to fuel our transport needs and we may see the growth of more electricity generation to move vehicles.
As a practical matter, the bulk of our energy in the near term will continue to come from fossil fuels. Our electrical grid and the highway system won't change very fast or cheaply. Using the simplistic moniker, ‘unburnable carbon’ ignores a tough first step—consumers have to care about the impact of their energy habits.
We need to worry about controlling externalities; that is why we have regulators and standards. We have a process available to debate and manage our carbon emissions and establish limits. It is not improved, though, when we are confronted by a purposefully antagonistic and deceptive polemic that distorts responsibility and delays thoughtful and rigorous policy debate.
Better to get back to the elephant in the room. What public policy objectives does society want as a world community, and what price are we willing to pay to ensure they are met?