the assumption of responsibility for the welfare of the world















The energy we use in the world can be divided generally into three categories: fossil fuels, renewable energy, and nuclear power.

Fossil fuels

Fossil fuel results from decomposition and heat or pressure transformation of organic matter over very long periods of time. Consequently, we cannot produce more of it; what there is now, and what we have already consumed, is the total of this fuel that we will ever have.

Oil, or petroleum, is a liquid found in subsurface reservoirs. Crude (unprocessed) oil can be processed into a variety of fuels, notably gasoline, which is used to power internal combustion engines in modern vehicles. Gasoline was originally just a by-product of the refinement of oil into kerosene, which is thus another oil product. Others include diesel and jet fuel and fuel oil, which is burned for energy, formerly in transportation and now typically for heat in residential settings (still common in New England). These fuel uses are in addition to non-energy uses of petroleum, such as plastics and asphalt.

The leading oil-producing states in the world are the US, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Canada, China, Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Brazil, Iran, and Kuwait. [US Energy Information Administration] Saudi Arabia is the leading exporter.

A major feature of oil economics is the existence of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). OPEC is a cartel, a form of institutional collusion among producers. Each member state agrees to abide by collective decisions regarding oil production. By controlling production, they aim (with reasonable success) to control price, through the law of supply and demand: if the members produce more oil, the price of oil will fall; if they produce less oil, the price will rise. Obviously not all oil-producing states are members of OPEC, but many of them are. And the leading oil producers who are not in OPEC are mostly also large consumers of oil. The original five members of OPEC are Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela; the other members are Libya, the UAE, Algeria, Nigeria, Gabon, Angola, Equatorial Guinea, and Congo-Brazzaville. (Qatar, Indonesia, and Ecuador all joined at one point and subsequently left.) Note that, despite the common belief that OPEC is a Middle Eastern organization, OPEC’s sixteen current or former members include two states in Latin America, five in Sub-Saharan Africa, and one in Southeast Asia.

If we were to define a stable democracy as one that has been consistently democratic for at least twenty-five years (a low standard to begin with), how many stable democracies are there in OPEC? The answer is: zero. There are no stable democracies in OPEC. Nigeria has been at best a dubious democracy since 1999, and only in 2015 experienced its first transfer of presidential power from one party to another. Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez won a genuine election in 1998, but then built an undemocratic government that has kept him and successor Nicolás Maduro in power. Angola has had a single governing party for all of independence, and for thirty-eight years a single head of government. Libya is divided among several governments; it and Iraq are in recent and tenuous transitions to democracy, holding elections but experiencing violence of the sort that limits the free exercise of the vote. The rest of the members of OPEC aren’t even close to democratic. Nor are, among the leading non-OPEC producers, Russia and China.

This is an illustration of the Resource Curse: states that are rich in a particular natural resource tend to be badly governed. Specifically, states that depend on a resource for revenue tend to have undemocratic, corrupt governments. In other words, having a valuable natural resource is not the blessing it seems to be, but a major disadvantage in political and social development. Why does it happen? There are a couple of central reasons. The first reason is one that should make sense to all of us, from our experience as children or employees. When others are supporting you, they expect something in return. They will hold that support over your head. Now consider where the US government gets its money. The US is resource-rich, but does not depend on those resources for government revenue (in fact, it tends to give its natural resources away). The US has a highly-diversified economy and a broad tax base, depending for its operating budget on taxes paid by ordinary citizens. Because the government depends on its citizens for revenue, those citizens are able to hold it accountable. By contrast, a government that gets its revenue from a resource typically feels able to disregard the will of its subjects. In other words, a government that must tax its citizens is more likely to answer to the citizens through democracy, and a government that is funded independently of its citizens is more likely to be undemocratic.

A second major reason for the Resource Curse is the attractiveness of controlling a resource-rich government, and the temptations when doing so. A government that controls a lucrative resource is an opportunity for the members of the government to enrich themselves. That alone makes the government more likely corrupt. It also encourages coups d’état; if you are a powerful officer in the military, for example, and you see the head of government looting the government’s revenue and stowing billions of dollars in Swiss bank accounts, you might decide to use your military position to seize control of the government for yourself, and put that money in your own Swiss bank account.

The two best counterexamples to the resource curse are Botswana and Norway. Botswana is rich in diamonds, but has been one of the brightest spots for democracy in Sub-Saharan Africa. Norway is rich in oil (though also, it should be pointed out, economically and culturally similar to its post-industrial neighbors in Western Europe). Interestingly, despite its oil wealth, Norway gets 96% of its own energy from hydroelectric sources.

Coal is a solid fuel found in subsurface deposits. Coal can be burned directly as fuel, but is also used to produce electricity; as in the second phase of the Industrial Revolution, this is done by heating water to generate steam to turn turbines. The leading coal-producing states are China, India, the US, Indonesia, and Australia [World Coal Association]; Indonesia is the leading exporter. Grouped with coal in the statistics below is peat, which is formed on the surface of the Earth from decomposed plant matter in wetlands.

Coal is generally a heavy polluter. Certain kinds of coal are primarily responsible for acid rain, where sulfates in the coal are released into the air as sulfur dioxide (SO2) and react with water to form sulfuric acid (H2SO4). Technologies are being implemented to clean coal emissions somewhat in the early industrial states, but newly-industrialized states like China and Russia are still emitting high-sulfur pollution.

Natural gas is gas that develops in pockets in the Earth’s crust; it is primarily (but not entirely) methane (CH4). The leading producers of natural gas are the US, Russia, Iran, Canada, and China. [Enerdata] Russia is the leading exporter. Natural gas is a common energy source for residential purposes, including most furnaces and many stoves. Natural gas can also be compressed into a liquid; in that form, it can be used as a fuel in specially-adapted vehicles.

Renewable energy

As the name suggests, renewable energy refers to sources that regenerate or can be regenerated. The most basic renewable energy source is solar power. Typically this is used to generate electricity through photovoltaic cells, though it is possible to heat things directly in the sun, of course. Wind power is translated into energy by turbine, now generally in the form of large towers with spinning blades erected in plains or along coasts where winds are plentiful. These essentially work the same as the traditional windmill, in which wind turned blades on a tower to create the mechanical action to grind grain.

Hydroelectric power is the use of the kinetic energy of moving water to produce electricity. (Again, this is akin to the waterwheel power in the early Industrial Revolution.) Conventionally, the term ‘hydroelectric’ is confined to one form of this: the damming of rivers to create artificial pools (reservoirs), from which the water is released slowly through turbines to generate electricity. Tidal power is a form of hydro power that uses the rising and falling of the tides. This involves installing turbines in the water along a coast, so that the moving water can generate electricity.

Geothermal energy comes from heat generated within the Earth, through radioactive decay. It was first accessed through naturally-occurring hot springs, and this is essentially how it is still accessed today: pumping water into the Earth to heat it.

Biomass is organic matter used directly as fuel. The most familiar version of this is firewood. Firewood remains an important fuel for home heating and cooking in many parts of the world. Biomass is often, like firewood, gathered from nature, though it can be grown specifically for the purpose, and some biomass is the repurposing of organic waste (as from agriculture). By comparison, biofuel is a fuel produced by the processing of organic matter. Charcoal falls into this category. Ethanol, or ethyl alcohol (C2H5OH), is the alcohol found in alcoholic beverages; it is produced as a biofuel from plant matter, notably used in the US as an additive in gasoline. Ethanol as a fuel is generally derived from sugarcane (as in Brazil) or corn (as in the US).

Fossil fuels and almost all renewable energy are ultimately derived from the sun. Solar energy is using the sun directly, of course. Organic matter comes from the processing of solar energy, and its own energy ultimately traces back to photosynthesis; the stored chemical energy thus created accounts not only for biomass and biofuels, but also for fossil fuels, which come from decayed organic matter. But even wind and hydroelectric power can be traced back to the sun. Recall, again, that the Earth’s fluids — air and water — function as a system for moving energy around the planet, and that this is driven by the different levels of energy received in different parts of the Earth. Per Boyle’s Law, heating gas will cause it to expand, and thus move towards an area of lower pressure; heating water will also generally cause it to expand (become less dense), which causes it to rise relative to colder water. Heat also leads to the evaporation of water and the melting of ice. The constant input of energy thus causes a constant churning of fluids, interacting with the irregular surface of the Earth.

Nuclear power

Modern nuclear power is mostly created through fission, primarily of a rare isotope of uranium (235U). The fission is used in a familiar way: to heat water, to produce steam, to turn turbines. Nuclear power has both dramatic advantages and disadvantages relative to fossil fuels, and remains highly controversial. On the one hand, nuclear power produces no air pollution, and is relatively cheap and abundant; and there are nuclear technologies not yet in wide use that could improve on its potential dramatically. On the other hand, nuclear power pollutes water (in the form of heat), and produces radioactive waste that is toxic to life and must be permanently stored. And the production of nuclear power carries the risk of meltdown accidents, which expose workers and sometimes wide areas around the plants to radioactivity. Notable accidents have occurred in the Fukushima Daiichi (福島第一 « Huku-sima Dai-iti ») plant in Japan (2011), Chernobyl (Чорнобиль « Čornobilĵ ») in the Soviet Union (1986), and Three Mile Island in the US (1979). Each of these accidents has caused a reevaluation of nuclear power as a whole, as well as reconsideration of plant design and safety precautions. The Fukushima disaster, most recently, has led to a dropoff in nuclear power use, and a scramble to replace it in places that are dependent on nuclear power. In some cases, that is not really feasible; France, for instance, gets 76% of its power from nuclear.


Total world consumption comes from the following sources: 34.5% from oil; 27.9% from coal; 24.5% from natural gas; 7.1% from traditional biofuels; 2.7% from hydropower; 1.7% from nuclear; .81% from wind; .37% from solar; and .4% from other renewables. [Our world in data] Electricity, often included in this list, is not actually a source of energy; rather, it is means of transmitting energy that is derived from other sources. Global electricity generation comes from these sources: 41.1% from coal; 21.9% from natural gas; 16.5% from hydroelectric; 10.8% from nuclear; 6.1% from other renewables; and 3.6% from oil. [OWID]

The sources of the world’s carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions are: 40.3% from coal and biomass; 34.1% from oil; 20.5% from natural gas; 4.1% from cement production; and .94% from flaring. [OWID] Of the energy used in the world, 54.9% is industrial, 12.6% is residential, 7.0% is commercial, and the remaining 25.5% is for transportation. [US EIA]

Costs and politics of energy

The environmental costs of energy, particularly the pollution costs, can be broken into an extraction stage and a use stage. The costs of the use stage obviously include pollution, notably carbon dioxide and soot for fossil fuels. This makes fossil fuels responsible for anthropogenic global warming, as well as the aggravation of respiratory illness. What was formerly a massive public-health problem in Los Angeles is now a massive public-health problem in places like Beijing, where the pressures to industrialize quickly and cheaply, and the rapid increase in vehicle traffic resulting from economic development and urbanization, are outweighing the health costs at the moment. The costs of the extraction stage include the same kind of air pollution (extraction itself expends energy). They also include ground and water pollution, as waste and by-products are disposed of. Extraction of natural resources generally upends the ecosystem of an extraction site completely, and many of those sites were previously (relatively) undisturbed. Recently, the extraction of natural gas and oil through hydraulic fracturing (fracking) has become a major controversy. Fracking involves forcing pressurized water into the Earth to break open rock formations and release oil and gas. This has the potential to contaminate groundwater and even increase the risk of earthquakes. In extraction, use, and transport, oil has proven a contamination hazard; accidents like the crash of the Exxon Valdez (1989) and the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon (2010) have spilled massive amounts of oil. Worries about spills have played a central role in the debate over the Keystone XL pipeline, which was to transport oil from the tar sands of Canada to refineries in Illinois and Texas, while transiting across the Ogallala aquifer (a major groundwater deposit).

Even renewables have downsides. Solar and wind plants take up land, often land that had been wilderness. Solar cells cover land with impermeable surfaces, which changes the hydrology. Wind turbines kill migratory birds. Dams disrupt rivers, kill fish and block fish migration, and completely submerge large areas of land, also mostly wilderness. Biofuels and biomass produce emissions, including carbon dioxide; using wood or charcoal indoors can also be hazardous, as the burning produces carbon monoxide (CO) as well. Both solar and wind are available only at limited times, and in the case of wind, unpredictable times. So the use of solar and wind as sources of energy requires, in practice, the storage of energy generated at one time for use at another time. Battery technology is a significant limitation on the use of solar and wind.

The movement to renewables has been hampered by the inefficiencies of some of the technologies. Until it makes economic sense to use renewables, companies will not do so. The inefficiencies are themselves due largely to the lack of research into those technologies. That, in turn, is the result of the power of the fossil-fuel industries; governments have traditionally funded much of the research that has allowed new technologies to develop, but the lobbying of fossil-fuel companies has stymied that. The economic equation could also be changed through government action; if the true environmental and human cost of fossil fuels were imposed on companies in the form of taxes, renewables could be cost-competitive; or governments could simply mandate cleaner fuels. But that government action is again opposed by industry lobbyists. Moreover, there is a genuine division in public opinion, with many unwilling to bear additional costs in the short term to avoid possible long-term costs like climate change. For companies, these costs could mean lower profits, for consumers, higher prices, for workers in certain industries (like coal mining), loss of employment. All of these economic considerations create a political environment favoring the status quo.

Ethanol in some respects burns more cleanly than gasoline, but not in all respects, and the production of ethanol from corn consumes more energy than the resulting ethanol contains. Why, then, do we use it? For the United States, the answer is something that occurs every four years. The first contest in the presidential nominating process takes place in Iowa, a statewide series of caucuses (meetings) in which voters determine whom they would like to nominate for the presidency in the two major political parties. Because Iowa goes first, it has the opportunity to make or break candidacies; it generates disproportionate press beforehand, and after the Iowa caucuses, the media will spend the next week talking up the winners. Nationally-unknown candidates can break through by travelling around Iowa meeting voters; nationally-prominent candidates can suffer campaign-ending blows by finishing low, or much lower than expected, in the caucuses. Barack Obama would not have become president had he not defeated Hillary Clinton in Iowa in 2008. And Iowa is a farm state, with corn its most valuable crop. Nearly half of Iowa corn is turned into ethanol, in part because of federal subsidies. Federal subsidies distort the market, making producers and consumers do things that otherwise do not make economic sense. But removing the subsidies is virtually impossible because the Iowa caucuses play such an outsized role in determining the president. No politician who wants to be president or wants to work for a president can afford to oppose the ethanol subsidy, because Iowa voters will punish such politicians in the caucuses. Hence, few national politicians will oppose the ethanol subsidy.

The US has a longstanding plan to centralize the long-term storage of nuclear waste at a single site, namely Yucca Mountain in Nevada, specially chosen to minimize the risks associated with this radioactive material. In addition to the objections raised over the transport of this waste to Nevada, though, there are the objections of the people of Nevada. Nevada is a small state, but one of its US Senators, Harry Reid, spent six years as majority leader (2007-15) and four years as minority leader (2005-7, 2015-7). And more recently, Nevada has been favored as one of the first four presidential nominating contests. So far, it has proven politically impossible to move forward with the Yucca Mountain plan.

Electricity, as a means of energy transmission, is inherently neutral for most of the trade-offs in energy production. An electric car, for example, is not necessarily emissions-free, despite the usual description; rather, it requires whatever emissions are produced in the electricity-generation process. If an electric car is charged by a grid powered by coal, then it is essentially a coal-powered car. It has, nonetheless, distinct advantages over a conventional internal-combustion engine. First, pollution controls can be centralized; the car itself doesn’t need a good pollution-control system. Second, the car’s contribution to environmental degradation can be reduced if the power grid’s contribution is reduced. Improved pollution control can be implemented at the power plant. Ultimately, the source of the power can be switched out entirely. A coal plant could be converted to natural gas, or a nuclear plant replaced with a mix of solar, wind, and hydroelectric.



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