Carbon-less World

Hassan Aljama
January 9, 2015

Submitted as coursework for PH240, Stanford University, Fall 2014

Fig. 1: Fig. 1: Percent of Each Energy Source to the Total World Energy Mix. [1]

There has been great concern in recent years about the excessive use of fossil fuels. Environmentalists have been expressing deep concern about the role of CO2 emitted from these fossil fuels in damaging the climate. Historical record shows some degree of temperature rise over the past few decades compared to pre-industrial levels. Many scientists believe that this trajectory will continue, if not worsen. Environmentalists have been protesting the use of all fossil fuels and advocating cleaner alternative energies.

Having said that, the major challenge is that we currently live in a world heavily dominated by fossil fuels. It is safe to say that the life we live today will be dramatically different if we abandon fossil fuels. Fossil fuels constitute over 85% of the world's energy mix. There is a good reason why this is the case. It is simply that it is a far superior fuel. Fossil fuels have much higher energy density compared to others. For example, the tank in your gasoline car can hold far more energy than any battery in an electric car. Add to that that fossil fuels are far cheaper. Many people have the option today to buy solar panels, or electric vehicles. However, most people don't do so and the reason is simple: they are more expensive. Simply put, you pay less, and get a better performance. This is why fossil fuels dominate the energy market.

Many people who discuss the issue of carbon footprint overlook the simple fact that world (as currently is) is heavily reliant on fossil fuels. The main question here is: can we rely on other type of fuels to displace fossil fuels? and if so, when can this happen? In order to answer this question, we need to examine the role of alternative fuels.

Fig. 1 shows the contribution of each of the energy sources to the world's total energy mix. As mentioned earlier, fossil fuels constitute over 85%. Let's look at the other energy sources. Hydroelectricity, for example, constitutes less than 7% of the world energy mix. In 2014, the global output increased by 2.9% (it is slightly higher than the world energy growth of 2.3% in 2013). Hydroelectricity is limited by nature, so it seems unlikely that it can overtake a large share of fossil fuels in the near future.

Alternative options include nuclear energy and renewables, which combined constitute around 6% of the total energy mix. Renewables here mostly refers to solar and wind energy. As of today, it seems very challenging to rely on these fuels to take the place of fossil fuels. This requires a drastic growth in these fields, coupled with a drastic price reduction. In the past few years, there has been rapid development in these fields. Research is very active and looking very promising. Solar, for example, have seen its market share increasing dramatically over the past decade.

However, with all this being said, taking over the 85% share of fossil fuels is unlikely in the near future. Although a transition to a carbon-less fuels is needed, the pie chart teaches us that this will take time. Our energy use trajectory will only grow, as more poor countries want to move up the ladder (economic growth requires spending energy). These poorer courtiers cannot afford to pay more for their energy bills. Forcing an early transition will be costly. If the prices of alternatives aren't at the same levels as fossil fuels, this means that people will have to pay more. I would guess that most people won't be happy with having to pay more, but I might be wrong.

All of us want to live in an environmentally friendly planet. Most energy companies, even fossil fuels based ones such as Shell, envision a future with a carbon-less energy sources (although with a drastically different time scale). The current shares of the pie chart must be corrected. But it will not happen overnight. It will likely take much more time than many would like.

© Hassan Aljama. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] BP Statistical Review of World Energy," British Petroleum, June 2014.