Why are we discussing energy policy

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Three different motivations drive today's energy discussions.

First, fossil fuels are a finite resource. It seems possible that cheap oil (on which our cars and lorries run) and cheap gas (with which we heat many of our buildings) will run out in our lifetime. So we seek alternative energy sources. Indeed given that fossil fuels are a valuable resource, useful for manufacture of plastics and all sorts of other creative stuff, perhaps we should save them for better uses than simply setting fire to them.

Second, we're interested in security of energy supply. Even if fossil fuels are still available somewhere in the world, perhaps we don't want to depend on them if that would make our economy vulnerable to the whims of untrustworthy foreigners. (I hope you can hear my tongue in my cheek.) Going by figure 1.2, it certainly looks as if "our" fossil fuels have peaked. The UK has a particular security-of-supply problem looming, known as the "energy gap." A substantial number of old coal power stations and nuclear power stations will be closing down during the next decade (figure 1.3), so there is a risk that electricity demand will sometimes exceed electricity supply, if adequate plans are not implemented.

Third, it's very probable that using fossil fuels changes the climate. Climate change is blamed on several human activities, but the biggest contributor to climate change is the increase in greenhouse effect produced by carbon dioxide (CO2). Most of the carbon dioxide emissions come from fossil-fuel burning. And the main reason we burn fossil fuels is for energy. So to fix climate change, we need to sort out a new way of getting energy. The climate problem is mostly an energy problem.

Whichever of these three concerns motivates you, we need energy numbers, and policies that add up.

The first two concerns are straightforward selfish motivations for drastically reducing fossil fuel use. The third concern, climate change, is a more altruistic motivation - the brunt of climate change will be borne not by us but by future generations over many hundreds of years. Some people feel that climate change is not their responsibility. They say things like "What's the point in my doing anything? China's out of control!" So I'm going to discuss climate change a bit more now, because while writing this book I learned some interesting facts that shed light on these ethical questions. If you have no interest in climate change, feel free to fast-forward to the next section on page 16.

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Netherlands Denmark

Norway

United Kingdom

Figure 1.2. Are "our" fossil fuels running out? Total crude oil production from the North Sea, and oil price in 2006 dollars per barrel.

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Netherlands Denmark

Norway

United Kingdom

Figure 1.2. Are "our" fossil fuels running out? Total crude oil production from the North Sea, and oil price in 2006 dollars per barrel.

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a> 2 Nuclear

a> 2 Nuclear

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Figure 1.3. The energy gap created by UK power station closures, as projected by energy company EdF. This graph shows the predicted capacity of nuclear, coal, and oil power stations, in kilowatt-hours per day per person. The capacity is the maximum deliverable power of a source.

2010 2015 2020 2025

Figure 1.3. The energy gap created by UK power station closures, as projected by energy company EdF. This graph shows the predicted capacity of nuclear, coal, and oil power stations, in kilowatt-hours per day per person. The capacity is the maximum deliverable power of a source.

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