Stephen C. Bannister: Our Faustian bargain with fossil fuels

(Brian Maffly | Tribune file photo) Pump jacks pull up hydrocarbons in the Three Rivers oil field southwest of Vernal, near Pelican Lake and the Green River, pictured on June 14, 2019. Members of Congress, including Utah Republicans, are seeking a halt to collection of federal royalties for mining and drilling on public lands — except they want the states to keep getting their share.

Most of us have enjoyed the much cleaner air since the great COVID-19 shutdown-caused economic collapse. Everything damaging that we normally dump into our common airshed is reduced — carbon dioxide that increases climate warming and the pollutant precursors that cause regional haze we notice as bad air quality and bad health outcomes — and the result has been cleaner air for all to enjoy.

But this win has been accompanied by considerable social and commercial costs. The pandemic has sharply curtailed personal and business activities, causing lost incomes across the economy and damaging the poorest parts of society and business most heavily.

This tragedy has brought into stark relief the terrible choices we face as long as we have carbon-based fuels as the major energy input to our society. We confront a paradox, the Faustian bargain of the carbon age. It is fundamental that no economic activity — in fact, no action of any kind — happens without energy inputs. Energy inputs and all events are thermodynamically two sides of the same coin. Thus, if we use dirty energy for economic activity, we will have a damaged and dirty environment.

And, the current clean air win is very fragile. As we figure out how to “open up” economic activity, the air quality will get bad again. It almost doesn’t matter where you stand in the debate between masks and social distancing versus open ‘er up right now. If you are for clean air, you must use this tragedy to think about our future. We now powerfully know how to clean the air — stop using carbon fuels.

The challenge is how to do so completely and permanently without destroying our economy. I think we will develop a stronger impetus toward using renewable fuels as a result of this experience. That will be an excellent outcome. But much serious research including mine says we are not making real progress toward banishing carbon fuels quickly enough. With current cost curves, renewables will not completely displace carbon fuels. So, are we stuck in our Faustian bargain?

No, we are not stuck. But to win the twin races against dirty air and climate change we must embrace a new strategy. So far, the primary approaches have been carbon substitution with renewables or raising the price of carbon fuels by imposing a tax. Both can help, but for their unique reasons will not win the race. The renewable substitution strategy is compelling, but will not be sufficiently successful unless the technologies in the current solution set — primarily solar and wind — become much, much cheaper relative to carbon sources. This outcome is not likely on current trends.

Carbon taxes could help but are politically problematic in this country for some of the same reasons we struggle against the COVID-19 fight. Even if we solve that problem, they cannot be a complete solution.

What will work, and work quickly? Simply a clean energy source that is relatively much cheaper — think 100 times cheaper for a thought experiment — than carbon sources. A reference would be the current research projects on hot fusion reactors. While hot fusion appears not likely to succeed, the effort points the way to the solution: invest heavily in research and development for new very inexpensive energy sources that we know exist, but require research and development to bring to commercial use.

We now have two pandemics to eradicate. I think COVID-19 will prove easier than carbon pollution. But both are winnable given enough investment in the right technologies.

Stephen C. Bannister

Stephen C. Bannister, Ph.D., Salt Lake City, is an associate professor of economics at The University of Utah. The view expressed here are his own and not necessarily those of the university.