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The Social Benefits of Carbon, Part 1

John Miller's picture
Owner-Consultant Energy Consulting

During my Corporate career I provided manufacturing with power generation facilities’ technical-operations services and held different technical and administrative management positions.  In order...

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  • Aug 15, 2016


The ‘Social Cost of Carbon’ (SCC) has dominated most Climate Change policy developments. International agreements often exclude potential impacts of aggressively reducing future fossil fuels consumption.  Even though fossil fuels’ can impact future weather patterns and cause some level of SCC, unreasonably constraining this primary source of current world energy supplies can have major negative impacts on most Countries and their Populations.

To limit future global warming to about 2 degrees Celsius, many climate models estimate that total world 1990 level carbon emissions should be reduced by about 80%, mid-century.  This requires replacing the vast majority of fossil fuels with alternative renewables and nuclear power energy sources.  Not only will achieving this substantial reduction in current fossil fuels consumption be extremely challenging, the lost hydrocarbon fuels’ benefits could possibly be greater than current SCC estimates.

Reasonable new climate policy developments should compare total costs, including lost benefits of displaced fossil fuels, to the total environmental + clean energy benefits.  In addition, all cost-benefit analyses should include the impacts on most nations’ economies and their populations.  Unfortunately, reasonably thorough and accurate costs-benefits analyses of substantially reducing fossil fuels energy consumption by 2050 are generally not covered in most governments’ developing climate policies.

Due to the inaccurate assumptions that fossil fuels are only costly sources of high carbon energy that can readily be replaced by renewables, the full impacts of rapidly reducing world fossil fuels supplied are generally omitted from current policy’s analyses.  To avoid ineffective and possibly wasteful climate change policies based only on SCC estimates, the benefits of fossil fuels, or ‘Social Benefits of Carbon’ (SBC), should be included in major developing policies.

To better understand the significance of historic and current fossil fuels technologies, energy supplies and their benefits, I completed a summary analysis of major energy technologies and developments over the past two centuries, and the overall impacts on World Economies and Populations.

History of World Civilizations, Energy Sources and Technology Developments – Prior to the mid-Centuries AD (or CE), the world’s evolving and growing civilizations relied on 100% renewable energy supplies and technologies.  These included biomass heating fuels (primarily wood), wind (sail boats & windmills), hydropower (water wheels and mills) and manual labor (hunting and gathering, animal transport and row boats).

The world’s human population grew fairly slowly prior to 1st Century AD due to limited availabilities of clean water, food supplies, biomass fuels, and other resources needed by developing Civilizations.  Another factor that became increasingly problematic was the development of a few more powerful Empires and growing competition for limited natural resources.  These factors constrained total world population to less than about 200 million prior to the 1st Century AD.  This pattern of limited natural resources and very slow population growth continued though the 17th Century AD.  Refer to Figure 1.
Figure 1
Primary Data – UN sources.

This very slow population growth trend changed dramatically by the 19th Century.  More rapid population growth was initially due to a combination of various empires’ and/or civilizations’ developing some early technologies and increasingly accessing required natural resources.  One early major development event that increased access to natural resources was the ‘Age of Exploration or Discovery’.  Major European nations began discovering and accessing new global resources during the 15th -18th Centuries.  This largely involved sailing cross-oceans to access added natural resources in newly discovered continents such as the Americas.

Besides colonizing new lands around the world, basic technology advancements helped facilitated major developing nations’ abilities to begin growing their populations at increasing rates.  These earlier technology advancements were based primarily on renewable energy powered equipment, supplies, and manual labor.  Technology upgrades included increased water sources (expanding supplies infrastructures such as canals, water well windmills & storage reservoirs), increased food supplies (expanded domestic agriculture), and transportation improvements (larger, more efficient sail ships & horse-drawn transportation).

The next very major civilizations’ development events and technology advancements occurred during the ‘Industrial Revolutions’.  As a result of the Industrial Revolutions major developments in new production technologies enabled increased availability of needed goods and food supplies for growing nations’ populations.  Major advancements included textiles, steels, machinery, cements, and mining.  These and other major improvements substantially increased the abilities of major developing nations to grow and prosper at increasing rates.  As a result of the Industrial Revolutions technology advancements, the most developed and many developing countries’ economies began to grow quite substantially.  Refer to Figure 2a.
Figure 2a
Primary Data Source – The World Bank; 2000 $ basis.

Advancements in the technologies and the production of needed goods and supplies began to grow increasingly during the 19th and first half of the 20th Centuries; as measured by total world ‘gross domestic product’ (GDP).  Following World War II (WWII), most developed countries’ economy’s growth rates began substantially accelerating.  This was due to major developments in the ability of many Countries’ Commercial and Industrial Sectors to make the switch from limited capacity-efficiency manual labor and renewable energy powered technologies, to newly developing fossil fuels powered technologies.  These developments also contributed to growing world trade between the most developed and major developing countries.

Another major benefit of the rapid growth in world GDP following WWII was the overall impact on populations’ average incomes and standards-of-living.  Refer to Figure 2b.
Figure 2b
Data Sources – Figures 1 & 2a.

World per capita GDP began increasing slowly during the last quarter of the 19th Century and then much more rapidly following WWII.  Since WWII average per capita GDP’s have increased by almost 4-fold.  Why is this data important?  The obvious answer is that it represents a (proportional) measure of average world populous incomes and associated standards-of-living.  Yes, developed countries average incomes are currently about 5-times that of average developing countries.  However, despite this apparent difference in economic performances, the world’s overall populations have benefited and experienced very large increases in average standards-of-living over the past 70 years.

Impacts of Developing Fossil Fuels Powered Technologies – One major innovation that enabled rapidly increasing development of many countries’ economies during and following the Industrial Revolutions was the evolving (external combustion) ‘steam engine’ technology.  Over the past two centuries, steam engine applications grew substantially and displaced most alternative power systems including manual laborers and work animals.  Steam powered engines also replaced most state-of-art sail ships, and facilitated railroads transportation development.  The initial locomotive steam engines that were fueled by wood were rapidly switched to more efficient coal.

Another major advancement supported by coal fueled steam engines during the early 19th Century was the development of electric powered technologies.  Centralized power generation was initially supplied by hydropower, and increasingly by coal power plants. While developing electric motors displaced many (stationary) manufacturing steam engines over time, most larger Industrial scale equipment motors were based on steam engine technologies until post-WWII.   As the demand for electricity increased in most sectors (industrial, commercial and residential) throughout the developed and most the developing countries, coal fired plants rapidly became the most dominate source of electric power generation.

The next major technology developments, following the Industrial Revolution’s increased coal fueled machinery & engines and electric power generation, began during the ‘Age of Oil’.  The development of the ‘internal combustion engines’ (ICE) became a major game changer for most developed and many developing countries.  Coal fueled railroad engines were replaced by diesel ICE locomotives.  Development of ‘horseless carriages’ (automobiles and trucks) led to a very rapid growth in petroleum (motor fuels) consumption during the 20th Century.  Besides advancing automotive and locomotive ICE engine technologies, marine ships also continued transitioning from sails to steam and eventually many ICE powered vessels.  Post WWII witnessed the development and rapid growth of commercial airlines, which supported expansion of world commerce and tourism.  Power plants also began ‘fuels switching’ from coal-to-fuel oil; due to competitively priced oil.

All of these mobile and stationary ICE motor application developments led to substantial increases of petroleum consumption during the 2nd half of the 20th Century.  In addition to ‘piston driven’ ICE technology advancements, the development of petroleum turbines and jet engines further increased the demand for petroleum oil fuels, and increased major efficiency-capability improvements of stationary equipment and Airline transportation technologies.

Natural gas demand initially began during the 19th Century as an illumination fuel, which was rapidly replaced electric lights.  During the 20th Century natural gas became a growing source of heating fuels; in the industrial, commercial and residential sectors.  With time natural gas began displacing petroleum and coal heating fuels, particularly following the development of ‘gas turbine’ technologies and power generation.  Natural gas increasingly became a dominate source of heating fuels and power generation fuels during the 2nd half of the 20th Century; particularly as growing supplies and developing environmental regulations increasingly limited coal consumption in the developed countries’ industrial and power sectors.

The growing demand for all fossil fuels, in addition to renewable energy technologies, and growing economies and populations, led to a very rapid growth in world total ‘primary energy’ demand and consumption.  Refer to Figure 3a.
Figure 3a
Primary Data Sources – C2ES and DOE/EIA.  Note: Nuclear Power began making up an increasing percentage of ‘non-fossil fuels’ energy supplies in the 1970’s and up to about 1/3rd of total non-fossil fuels in 2015.

Total world ‘primary’ energy consumption initially grew fairly slowly until the early 20th Century.  During, and prior to, the 19th Century, non-fossil fuel (renewables; initially dominated by biofuels, hydro & wind), clearly dominated world primary energy supplies.  Beginning the 20th Century, total fossil fuels began exceeding total renewable energy supplies and consumption.  And, following WWII the consumption of fossil fuels began growing rapidly and became the most important and dominate source of world primary energy supplied.  For example: total world primary energy mix in 2015 was about 13% renewables (including approximately 1/4th from hydropower), 5% nuclear, and 82% fossil fuels.

As fossil fuels technologies have developed and advanced, and energy consumption increased over the past century, so has the fossil fuels supplied mix changed.  Refer to Figure 3b.
Figure 3b
Primary Data Sources – C2ES and DOE/EIA.

Coal was the dominate fossil fuel energy supplied until the early 1960’s.  The combination of increased transportation, and the industrial and the power sectors’ fuels switching, led to petroleum oils becoming the dominate source of the world’s fossil fuels supplied.  Overall, total fossil fuels consumption has grown at substantial (>10%/yr.) rates since WWII.

World Fossil Fuels Carbon Emissions Growth – Fossil fuels consumption has been the largest source of man-made carbon emissions over the past two centuries.  As developed and developing countries have grown, so have world fossil fuels carbon emissions. Refer to Figure 4a.
Figure 4a
Primary Data Sources – C2ES and DOE/EIA.  Note: carbon (dioxide) emissions from the consumption of fossil fuels makes up about 2/3rds of total World 2015 carbon ‘equivalent’ greenhouse gas emissions.

Carbon emissions from fossil fuels consumption increased slowly from 1800 to 1945, then began increasing at substantially higher rates.  From 1800-1945 the total world fossil fuels carbon emissions increased by about 4,200 million metric tons per year (MMT/yr.), and during 1945-2015 carbon emissions increased by an additional 29,200 MMT/yr.  This very large carbon emission increase was due to rapidly increasing energy demand from rapidly growing developed and developing countries’ economies, populations and their overall living standards.  These factors also resulted in per capita carbon emissions increases.  Refer to Figure 4b.
Figure 4b
Data Sources – Figures 1 & 4a.

World per capita carbon emissions from fossil fuels grew rapidly during the mid-19th to the early 20th Centuries and then nearly flatten out through WWII.  The reasons for this flattening of per capita carbon emissions was due to multiple factors.  These included the significant influences of WWI & WWII, the 1930’s Great Depression, technology efficiency improvements, and due to world oil demand beginning to exceed initially available supplies; or increasing fuel costs.  Limited oil supplies began developing during the 1930’s – 1940’s as originally developed ‘conventional’ on-shore oil reserves became increasingly depleted and early oil companies failed to sustain and grow their proven reserves with increasing demand.  Following WWII, the development of the huge Middle East (OPEC) crude oil reserves, and advancements in oil production technologies around most the world enabled substantial oil production growth worldwide.

The combination of growing environment problems (London Fog, LA Smog, etc.) and the energy crises of the 1970’s (due to the OPEC Arab Oil Embargo) resulted in reduced and increasingly controlled carbon-emissions from fossil fuels in the mid-1970’s through the 1990’s.  New and definitely needed environmental regulations substantially reduced the earlier most harmful fossil fuels pollution (PM, SOX, NOX, VOC’s, etc.) by requiring newly developed stationary source environmental control technologies (furnace/boiler burner controls advancements, stack precipitators and scrubbers, etc.).  Fuels switching to cleaner fuels such as lower sulfur petroleum and natural gas also reduced stationary sources’ pollution.  Mobile vehicle tailpipe pollution was rapidly reduced by cleaning up petroleum motor fuels (lower sulfur-cleaner diesels and gasolines, no-leaded gasoline, oxygenates blending, etc.) and building cleaner ICE’s (engine combustion controls advancements, catalytic converters, etc.).

The risks of future energy shortages (such as another OPEC embargo) and vehicle carbon emissions were reduced by requiring increased vehicle and equipment energy efficiencies, and increasingly supporting alternatives to petroleum motor fuels, such as biofuels.  These and other government regulations significantly cleaned up and reduced the need for per capita fossil fuels-carbon emissions; primarily in developed countries.

Social Benefits of Carbon – Most developed and developing countries have benefited substantially from fossil fuels’ technologies and available energy supplies since the early 20th Century. Over the past 70 years, fossil fuels have rapidly become the major and growing source of heating, power and transportation fuels.  This has enabled the residential, commercial, industrial, transportation and power sectors to meet the rapidly increasing energy demands of nearly all countries and their growing populations.  During this post WWII period the world population has tripled (increased from 2.4 to 7.3 Billion), the total developed and developing countries’ GDP’s have grown by almost 11-fold ($7 to $74 trillion/yr.), and average world populous standards-of-living are many times greater than pre-WWII.  Besides substantially reducing the need for manual labor and increasing most countries’ economies and populations living standards, cost effective fossil fuels energy benefits have helped facilitate the development of many other modern technologies.  Advancements in machinery and equipment power trains’ designs and operating controls have substantially increased energy efficiencies and consumers’ value-added benefits. Mankind would not have been able to take off into outer space and land on the moon without rockets fueled by petroleum; initially JP-4 jet + liquid O2.

The world is poised to continue to grow its populations, economies and average living standards at similar rates through mid-century. This, of course, assumes that the required resources, including energy technologies and supplies, continue to be available at the increasing levels required to support future developed and developing countries growing populations and economies.

Achieving the 2 Degree C Target – The world faces a major challenge in sustaining recent healthy developed and developing countries’ evolving technologies and growing economies and populations.  Substantially reducing future world total carbon emissions from fossil fuels with renewable and nuclear power technologies and energy sources, and possibly carbon capture and sequester technologies, can be far more difficult than recent UNFCCC negotiators apparently assume.  From 1990-2015 total world fossil fuels primary energy supplies increased by 4-times the amount than non-fossil fuels (primarily renewables) grew; equivalent Btu basis.  Even though major developed countries have implemented many green energy policies over the past 10 years, fossil fuels energy supplies still grew at almost 3-times the rate of renewables.  Despite this less than favorable fossil fuels energy consumption growth trend, the real question for the UNFCCC and individual countries’ government’s climate change policy developments is: “What are the feasible and reasonable timeframes needed to actually reduce world total fossil fuels consumption and associated carbon emissions towards the 80% goal from the 1990 baseline level?”.  In other words, how are developed and developing countries going to feasibly reduce their current total fossil fuels carbon emissions of 33,500 Million Metric Tons per year (MMT/yr.) in 2015 down towards 4,300 MMT/yr. (1990 80% reduction) by 2050?  These questions will be addressed in a future article: “Social Benefits of Carbon – Part 2: Feasible Alternative Energies, Technologies and Strategies”.

Rick Engebretson's picture
Rick Engebretson on Aug 16, 2016

You frame the discussion nicely, John. We are on the Titanic in the middle of the Ocean with many fellow passengers. Fossil fuels is our ship, and we need to know where the lifeboats are.

Some will say the ship is unsinkable, only fools worry. Others are selling tickets on this lifeboat or that lifeboat, that might instead be deathboats.

Your appeal for more comprehensive analysis and leadership from the officers quarters is laudable. If you find any I hope you share it in Part2.

John Miller's picture
John Miller on Aug 16, 2016

Rick, thanks much for the feedback. The challenge for all countries in the future will be finding those solutions which are reasonable feasible, cost effective and ultimately sustainable. The problem most developing countries face is that they can’t afford many of the green energy solutions proposed by much richer developed countries. And, the problem most developed countries face is adopting policies and green energy solutions that will actually make a significant difference in the future. Too many times politicians fail to understand the ‘full-lifecycle’ impacts of green energy solutions such as advanced biofuels, current market carbon credit’s actual values, and other major factors they appear to routinely overlook.

I’ll be covering the pros & cons of current, developing and some solutions not seriously considered by the UNFCCC and membership developed countries in Part 2.

Rick Engebretson's picture
Rick Engebretson on Aug 16, 2016

John, I don’t want to hear yet another criticism of “advanced biofuels.” If you don’t have constructive ideas you can join Robert Rapier and the rest.

In your world history you forgot that every major civilization since Egypt understood the relationship between water and plant growth. My entire presence on TEC, since long before your activity, was pushing what can now be called the food water energy nexus.

Even US history is full of great food water energy transportation development. Yet today both California and Louisiana can’t flush toilets or harvest crops for completely opposite reasons.

So who is more broke, “developed nations” spending money they don’t have to fight wars against people they pay to buy oil from?? While giving no thought to what once dominated thinking??

The situation is nuts. And more graphs of more obscure data doesn’t alter fundamental human civilization infrastructure needs.

Engineer- Poet's picture
Engineer- Poet on Aug 16, 2016

NB:  You keep using “dominate” (a verb) when you mean “dominant” (an adjective).

To avoid ineffective and possibly wasteful climate change policies based only on SCC estimates, the benefits of fossil fuels, or ‘Social Benefits of Carbon’ (SBC), should be included in major developing policies.

Energy has social benefits, but what specific good does the carbon do?

I’m reminded of Ayn Rand’s remark “go up to the biggest, smelliest smokestack you can find and kiss it” because of the social benefits.  But the social benefits didn’t come from the smoke, and we eventually got rid of the smoke and kept the benefits.

John Miller's picture
John Miller on Aug 16, 2016

Yes, every country has a relationship between water (availability) and plant growth (acreage availability & yields). The challenge for advanced biofuels is that we have yet to develop the commercial/industrial scale technologies (algae, cellulosic, etc.) that yields full-lifecycle carbon balances at the target 50% levels of the fossil fuels intended to be replaced; or at levels significant to reducing world carbon emissions. Numerous times I have done detailed evaluations of EPA approved advanced biofuels and found erroneous assumptions that lead to greater full-lifecycle carbon emissions than regulations require. Hopefully someday successful R&D will develop the new enzymes, microbes and/or chemistry needed to truly reduce carbon emissions from ‘non-food’ feedstocks to full-lifecycle carbon levels about half that of the displaced petroleum motor fuels needed for human civilization’s infrastructures in the future.

John Miller's picture
John Miller on Aug 16, 2016

Typo, my bad. As I am sure you know the specific good of carbon (dioxide) is generally required for all plant life, food & drinks, other industrial applications, etc. Increased CO2 levels definitely benefit plants, but likely not the overall global environment at some point in the future. Yes, the co-products or exhaust emissions from fossil fuels have gone through their evolution of too much/hazardous health based pollution (PM or smoke, NOx, Sox, VOC’s, etc.), to much lower and less harmful pollution levels in most developed countries. Developing countries such as China will get there someday.

Do you remember why exhaust smoke stacks were originally designed and installed? Environmental “solution by dilution”. Of course dilution was just the original technology solution to reducing the hazards of smoke. With time the combustion technologies evolved and improved to reduce smoke production, followed by precipitators, wet scrubbers, etc. to further clean up the stack exhausts. These technologies allowed burning fossil fuels to produce the power required by modern civilizations; with generally negligible harmful health impacts in developed countries. With time the need for fossil fuels and the associated carbon emissions will also be reduced as we increasingly electrify most economies in the future using non-fossil fuel technologies.

Rick Engebretson's picture
Rick Engebretson on Aug 16, 2016

The oldest human technology, burning biomass, and nobody has yet figured a better energy use?? Ya right!!

And we can lay out roads everywhere, with heavy cars going at least back and forth if not round and round, occupied by people reading the internet. But we can’t figure out how to move water from flood to desert and grow plants??

We need a little sanity, John. Before we face the weapons we made and paid for, to obtain oil we need but don’t have.

As regards the article topic: For humanity and biophysicists, atmospheric Carbon is a free lunch.

John Miller's picture
John Miller on Aug 16, 2016

Rick, I’ll try to cover some sanity in my Part 2 article as far as reasonably feasible policies and strategies to actually reduce world carbon emissions in the future, which by the way will include some level of sustainable bio(motor)fuels and heating biomass fuels. The problem-risks we face with some current Governments’ policies is that we will spend added $ 10’s of Trillions/yr. and atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations will likely still continue to increase at recent historic rates.

Hops Gegangen's picture
Hops Gegangen on Aug 17, 2016

I don’t see any justification for the theme conveyed by the title.There is a social benefit of energy of course, but the carbon is a negative side effect. And while the energy is a short term gain, the carbon is a long term pain.We need carbon-free energy.

John Miller's picture
John Miller on Aug 19, 2016

Hops, we once had a carbon-free energy world a couple centuries ago and also very small countries and populations. Over the history of mankind (short term gains?) all countries and their populations have grown with increased fossil fuels consumption from associated value-added technologies. The real question might be how large of population can be supported by today’s and future state-of-art carbon-free energy technologies and supplies. If this future carbon-free world goal includes sustainable biofuels, substantially increased nuclear and other renewables (wind, solar, hydro, geothermal, etc.) we may be able to sustain current population levels. But the challenge increases as world populations continue to grow and the costs of replacing all fossil fuels with carbon-free energy increasingly burdens most countries’ economies and their current living standards. If carbon-free renewables were truly cheaper than current fossil fuels, the relative growth rates of fossil fuels and non-fossil fuels would be different than the world has experienced in recent decades.

Robert Hargraves's picture
Robert Hargraves on Aug 19, 2016

John, in the next issue, can you try to quantify the social benefits? We see lots of calculations of the social costs, often quantified as $/ton of CO2 emissions. What’s the benefit, especially as perceived by the developing nations, who intend to build 1400 GW of new coal-fired power plants? What’s the benefit in $/ton?

CO2 emissions are indeed a problem we need to solve, but we have to broadcast to potential solutions providers the importance of energy for the world’s people, especially in developing nations. Here’s a hint: $4/kWh.

John Miller's picture
John Miller on Aug 20, 2016

Robert, in my Part 2 article-post I plan to include some credible projections and the social benefits developed and developing nations’ could expect. FYI, I have previously studied and analyzed the consumer costs of displacing most fossil fuels (power, heat & motor fuels) and found the fully amortized costs of nuclear and renewable energy supplies on the order of up to $100/MT CO2. I also tend to agree with most of Bjorn Lomborg’s articles on the subject. His analyses are generally more accurate and balanced than many special interests and most government agencies are on the subject of feasibly reducing world carbon emissions.

John Miller's picture
Thank John for the Post!
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