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Going green should not mean eradicating fossil fuels

Greenhouse gas emissions need to be tackled at the consumer end

| Middle East
A flame at the production facility of Saudi Aramco's Shaybah oilfield: only around 10% of global emissions from fossil fuels is released during extraction, processing and transportation.   © Reuters

Vandana Hari is founder of Singapore-based Vanda Insights, which tracks energy markets.

As calls to stop using fossil fuels -- especially oil and coal -- as a way of solving the world's environmental problems grow louder, it is worth asking whether that would mean throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Maybe it is the result of the over-simplification of complex climate change science to make it easy for people to understand, but demonizing fossil fuels may not only make it harder to curb global carbon emissions, but also leave the world without adequate energy resources in a long and painful trek toward greener alternatives.

But who has the courage to stand up and say it? The fact is that we have erected a formidable Chinese Wall between the vision of a greener world, and the use of the conventional fossil fuels that have satisfied most of the world's energy needs since the beginning of the 20th century. Without enough credible voices challenging the popular narrative, people have a tendency to dismiss counterpoints offered by the oil and gas industry's brain trust as self-serving.

Which made it all the more remarkable and refreshing to see Saudi Arabian energy minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman take issue with being asked to share his ideas on transitioning to a "low carbon" economy at a high-profile energy conference in Singapore last month.

"We don't believe in a low carbon economy," Abdulaziz said pointedly. "We believe in a low emissions economy." The minister representing the world's largest crude oil exporter went on to point out that greenhouse gas emissions comprise not just carbon dioxide that comes from burning fossil fuels. There are many other harmful gases that come from a variety of other sources, and they all need to be tackled together.

Carbon is like any other material, Abdulaziz stressed; it can be captured, stored and converted to useful products instead of being released into the atmosphere.

Indeed, while carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels and industrial processes make up about 65% of greenhouse gases, methane, nitrous oxide, and a host of other fluorinated gases also contribute to global warming. Agricultural activities, waste management, industrial processes and refrigeration are all major sources of greenhouse gases. Fluorinated gases are more potent as a global warming agent than carbon dioxide.

Replacing fossil fuels with cleaner energy sources is one way to reduce carbon emissions. But it is just one of many options. And the electrification of the transport sector is not a cure-all unless the electricity need to power all those vehicles is produced without polluting the air.

The world will continue to grow wind and solar power, but there are natural constraints preventing them from becoming the baseload for electricity generation. Coal-fired power generation will continue to be essential for the developing world, especially in Asia, to meet the rapidly-growing energy needs of a price-sensitive population and to drive economic growth.

A coal processing plant in Hejin, China: coal-fired power generation will continue to be essential in Asia.   © AP

Zero-emission fuels like hydrogen are in the development pipeline, but the economics of these energy sources is yet to be proven, and the timeframe for their mass availability is highly uncertain.

When it comes to securing energy sources, we cannot afford to engage in wishful thinking or consider only binary choices. The danger of being too focused on looking beyond fossil fuels is that we will miss out on technological innovation that can enable the more sustainable use of oil, gas and coal and provide energy security.

The United Nations Environment Program talks of "material efficiency." It proposes curbing considerable emissions from the iron and concrete industries through innovation in the materials used, material substitution, longer lifetimes for products and structures, the reuse of components, and high-value recycling.

In fact, the four Rs underpinning the concept of a circular economy -- reduce, reuse, recycle and renew -- apply to the exploitation of oil, gas and coal just as much as to other resources and are aimed at reducing carbon emissions as well.

But with fossil fuels being written off prematurely as a sunset industry, they cease to attract technological research-and-development funding. Fossil fuels are also not getting enough attention from the corporate and government sectors that might help keep them relevant and responsive to our changing needs.

Carbon capture, utilization and storage, a promising technology that removes harmful carbon dioxide emissions from the atmosphere at the site of power plants or in manufacturing processes, has suffered from slow adoption and anemic investment over the years. Without adequate policy support, this year's pandemic crisis could deal it another setback.

The vast majority of global emissions from fossil fuels happen at the point of consumption, with only around 10% released during extraction, processing and transportation, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. That puts the onus of curbing emissions on the air, water and land transportation sectors, and the users of electricity in industries including iron and steel, food and tobacco, chemicals and petrochemicals, as well as the manufacturing and construction sectors.

Yet, it is the oil and gas industry that attracts a disproportionate amount of attention and gets the blame for global warming that is actually caused by a wide variety of sectors that burn fuel.

It is the same lack of understanding of the full life cycle of every molecule of energy and the emissions produced along the way that has turned an electric car into the epitome of "green" transportation without attention to how clean or dirty is the energy needed to run it.

The world needs a holistic approach to energy and emissions. As governments direct some of their economic stimulus packages into green initiatives and draft policies for their long-term net zero emission targets, they should encourage projects, research and technologies that foster greener hydrocarbons, all the way from wells to wheels.

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