Jaccard predicts a rosy future for fossil fuels

December 01, 2005, vol. 34, no. 7
By Marianne Meadahl

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Contrary to popular belief, fossil fuels are not going the way of the dinosaur, says SFU professor and energy expert Mark Jaccard.

Forget the commonly held view that fossil fuels are on a downward slide given supply scares, rising costs and environmental concerns. Jaccard predicts that oil, gas and coal will still satisfy 58 per cent of the world's energy needs in the year 2100, fueled in part by growth in developing nations such as China.

Jaccard's forecast is detailed in his latest book, Sustainable Fossil Fuels: The Unusual Suspect in the Quest for Clean and Enduring Energy. The book will be distributed throughout North America in early January.

Jaccard has given talks on his research in Washington D.C., Ottawa, Edmonton and Vancouver, and will give an address at an event associated with the Eleventh Session of the Congress of Parties (COP 11) negotiations in Montreal Dec. 3. The talks are a continuation of the international process that produced the Kyoto agreement in 1997 to limit greenhouse gases.

Jaccard surmises that fossil fuels can be used with lower environmental impact or risk. They can be converted into clean forms of secondary energy - electricity, hydrogen and cleaner-burning synthetic fuels - in processes that capture and store the carbon that we don't want to reach the atmosphere, in the form of CO2 emissions.

“The costs of doing so, with technologies that are already applied in the economy for other purposes, are likely to be competitive with the usual suspects for clean energy - wind, solar, hydropower and biomass,” he says. “Because the cost differences are not great, it will be difficult for these other sources to supplant fossil fuels.” For example, he says while we should pursue energy efficiency, it is likely that the global energy system will still expand three or four fold over the century, as people in developing countries increase their use of energy services. “Even a marginal increase in energy use by people in these countries to provide the most basic services has a profound implication for aggregate energy use at the global scale,” he says.

Jaccard argues that our goal is not an energy system dominated by any one source, but rather “a low impact, low risk system that can meet expanded human needs indefinitely and economically.”

Despite the impacts and risks that have given fossil fuels a black image, Jaccard says, the history of fossil fuel use is also one of humans detecting and successfully addressing its environmental challenges, given improvements in some industrialized cities' air quality and acid emissions declines in recent decades.

“When all of these options are compared without prejudice, fossil fuels are likely to retain a significant role in the global energy system through this century and far beyond, and the transition toward renewables and perhaps eventually nuclear will be gradual.”

Jaccard is lead-author of The Cost of Climate Policy (2002) which estimates the costs of greenhouse gas reduction in Canada. The book won the national policy research initiatives award for outstanding research.

Stanford University professor John Weyant is among those praising Jaccard's book. “If our objectives are to improve energy security and protect the environment at reasonable cost, (Jaccard) makes clear that, with a little bit of ingenuity and resolve, our extensive fossil fuel resources could well be our best friend, rather than our worst enemy.”

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