Burning fossil fuels poses existential threat to Earth

October 27, 2016
A coal-fired power plant. Credit: Shutterstock/r.classen

Burning coal for electricity is in decline, while the use of natural gas, solar and wind power are on the rise. But how close are we to creating a clean energy economy to help protect our planet from the impacts of climate change? Rutgers Today asked Paul G. Falkowski, Bennett Smith Professor in Business and Natural Resources in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences and director of the Rutgers Energy Institute, about energy use, the presidential candidates' positions and the outlook for cleaner energy.

How significant a factor is our energy use when it comes to the health of our planet?

Falkowski: It's extremely important. It's actually probably one of the most existential threats to us over the coming decades. The issue isn't just political. Climate change has been called out as a potential strategic threat to national security by the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Climate change cannot be mitigated without a change in energy use.

How would you describe the presidential candidates' positions on energy?

Falkowski: I think the Republican position on energy is extremely backward-looking. They're trying to appeal to voters who think the future of the country is coal and other , with no attempt to understand or think about the consequences of . Coal is not being consumed the way it used to be and it never will be. Moreover, over the last several years, the United States has become virtually independent of foreign oil and . It's amazing to me that the American populace thinks we still import huge amounts of oil from Saudi Arabia or other Middle Eastern countries. We don't. We have a very robust energy economy that is based on fossil fuels and the Democrats' position has been to try to transition, over the next several decades, from dependence on fossil fuels as a major source of energy to energy that is generated from non-carbon-emitting sources. A huge investment has been made by the United States in general in solar energy, and to a lesser extent wind – you can see this all over the country. The Democrats' plan, developed under the Obama administration, has been partially implemented. The continuation of that should be accelerated if we're going to achieve decarbonization of especially electric power in the next 50 years or less.

What is the status of efforts to create a clean energy economy that would help limit global warming and climate change?

Falkowski: We're 10 percent of the way there, maybe. This is a very heavy lift and there is no way we will get there without some kind of tax on carbon or a disincentive for using fossil fuels, which are in great abundance on the planet. This is where Congress has been negligent. Congress has not changed tax policy in years. As a consequence fossil fuels are very cheap and the search for alternative energy supplies has not been encouraged because of the lack of economic incentives. In Europe or most other parts of the world, fossil fuels are heavily taxed. Gasoline costs about $8 a gallon in Europe. In the United States, if it goes to $3 a gallon, we're horrified. It's even more expensive in Canada than it is in the United States.

What should the next president pursue when it comes to energy use and solutions?

Falkowski: The first thing to do is to try to further decrease the amount of coal being used anywhere in the United States. The second is to increase, in the interim, the amount of natural gas used because burning it releases much less carbon dioxide pollution than coal to get the same amount of energy. The third is to work with the Congress to develop an energy policy that's not just contingent on technology –– but is based on changing the habits of people, the economics of fossil fuel use and social awareness.

Explore further: Target coal or carbon? Researchers are analyzing coal and energy caps as carbon policy instruments for China

Related Stories

Obama legacy: Quiet but big changes in energy, pollution

September 6, 2016

Mostly unnoticed amid the political brawl over climate change, the United States has undergone a quiet transformation in how and where it gets its energy during Barack Obama's presidency, slicing the nation's output of polluting ...

World is embracing clean energy, professor says

February 1, 2016

Renewable, energy efficient and flexible electricity sources are being adopted by policy makers and investors across the globe and this is sign of optimism in the battle against climate change, a University of Exeter energy ...

India shines with renewable energy announcement

December 1, 2014

As world leaders gather in Lima, Peru for the next round of the UN climate negotiations, India announced that it intends to more than double its use of renewable energy as a share of its electricity mix by 2020. The action ...

China wind power capacity jumps to record high

February 13, 2015

China boosted its installed wind energy capacity last year to a record 19.81 million kilowatts as the world's biggest greenhouse gas emitter tries to switch its power grid to cleaner energy sources.

Recommended for you

Scientists solve mystery of unexplained 'bright nights'

June 21, 2017

Dating back to the first century, scientists, philosophers and reporters have noted the occasional occurrence of "bright nights," when an unexplained glow in the night sky lets observers see distant mountains, read a newspaper ...

New research leverages big data to predict severe weather

June 21, 2017

Every year, severe weather endangers millions of people and causes billions of dollars in damage worldwide. But new research from Penn State's College of Information Sciences and Technology (IST) and AccuWeather has found ...

Measuring biological dust in the wind

June 21, 2017

In the popular children's story "Horton Hears a Who!" author Dr. Seuss tells of a gentle and protective elephant who stumbles upon a speck of dust that harbors a community of microscopic creatures called the Whos living the ...

5 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Shootist
1 / 5 (3) Nov 04, 2016
All the carbon sequestered in the ground in the form of coal, petrol, peat, natural gas and limestone, was once in the air as CO2. The planet didn't die.

It took 500 million years to get where we are now in the carbon cycle. It would take longer than 500 million years to burn all the fossil fuels and even then . . . more organic carbon would be sequestered in the crust and upper mantle than present in the atmosphere.
gkam
Nov 04, 2016
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
gkam
Nov 04, 2016
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
gkam
1.8 / 5 (5) Nov 04, 2016
"All the carbon sequestered in the ground in the form of coal, petrol, peat, natural gas and limestone, was once in the air as CO2. The planet didn't die."
---------------------------------------

Only anaerobes could survive then. We are not anaerobes.
Mark Thomas
3 / 5 (4) Nov 04, 2016
"I think the Republican position on energy is extremely backward-looking."

This could be generalized to:

"The Republican position on ____________ is extremely backward-looking."

Very recent examples include: global warming, evolution, science in general, health care, Zika, pesticide use, Confederate flag displaying . . .

It would be a lot easier to list which Republican positions aren't extremely backward-looking, if there actually are any.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.