Fossil Fuels and Mankind

It has become popular to demonise fossil fuels (FF). Pop stars, press, politicians and now Pontiffs speak with a single voice:

We know that technology based on the use of highly polluting fossil fuels – especially coal, but also oil and, to a lesser degree, gas needs to be progressively replaced without delay. Until greater progress is made in developing widely accessible sources of renewable energy, it is legitimate to choose the lesser of two evils or to find short-term solutions. But the international community has still not reached adequate agreements about the responsibility for paying the costs of this energy transition.


In this post I want to take a brief look at what FF have done for humanity and the environment. I will argue that in the 19th Century, FF first of all saved the whales from extinction and then through averting whole sale deforestation of the planet’s surface FF saved multiple ecosystems from destruction and as a consequence averted the extinction of thousands of species.

Figure 1 Population growth (blue line), right hand scale. Fossil fuel consumption (million tonnes oil equivalent) left hand scale. The exponential growth in population would not have been possible without FF. We all therefore owe the fabric of our society and our very existence to the use of FF over the past century or more. 

Energy and Man

Every human being on Earth requires energy to survive (see list on Figure 1). Be it a handful of rice for the poorest Bangladeshi or the excesses of suburban life in the West, everything we do requires energy and in 2014 86% of that energy came from FF and 11% from legacy hydro and nuclear plant. Only 3% came from alternative sources. Worryingly, in a step back towards 19th century squalor, much of that 3% came from felling and burning forests.

Figure 2 This chart shows per capita productivity (a proxy for income) on the Y-axis and per capita energy consumption on the X-axis. The data for each country represent a time series starting in 1970 and normally progressing with time towards greater income and energy consumption. It is plain to see that there is great disparity in the per capita income and per capita energy consumption between countries. As a general rule, developing countries are striving to become wealthy like the OECD and hence show year on year growth in income AND energy consumption. See for example China, Turkey, Brazil and Belarus. To become more wealthy and more prosperous, in the common sense, requires us to use more energy.

It is simple and simplistic to make the argument that there should be a more equitable distribution of wealth and energy consumption. It is certainly rational to propose the reduction of waste and improved energy efficiency in the west. But competition and survival of the fittest is in our genes and makes us who we are. And there are certain benefits that flow from the wealthy to the poor, inoculation against deadly infectious diseases to name but one.

I am not arguing here in favour of greater polarisation of wealth but merely making the observation that it is a natural consequence of the socio economic models that appear to have served us well. I would warn against the growing politics of envy.

To become wealthy, the poor need access to clean drinking water, sanitation, food, and housing. All this requires energy and natural resources.  The simplest and most economic way to provide this is through coal or gas fired power stations and the construction of electricity grids. To deny the poor access to FF is to condemn them to poverty for ever. It is fantasy to believe that the poor can be made wealthy (in the sense that the OECD is wealthy) by deployment of expensive and intermittent renewable energy. Like us, they may become wealthy only from using cheap, reliable and predictable energy supplies. This is not to say that there is no place for niche deployment of renewable energy in some developing countries.

Saving the Whales

During the 19th Century, global population doubled from approximately 0.8 to 1.6 billion (Figure 1). Throughout Europe and N America this coincided with a process of industrialisation, urbanisation and war. Resource consumption was on the rise and as we shall see in the following section forest timber was a key source of building material and fuel. But neither timber nor coal (at that time) could provide the light required in the cities that were being built and it is this niche that was filled by whale oil.

The production of whale oil grew exponentially from 1815 to 1845 and thereafter declined  following a classic “Hubbert curve” (Figure 3). At the same time we know that whales were almost hunted to extinction and this is often held up as an example of over exploitation of a finite resource. Post-peak whale oil production saw prices rise and become volatile suggesting a continued demand for whale oil that could not be met by supply. But the market situation is made more complex by the fact that just in the nick of time for whales, rock oil was discovered in Pennsylvania in the 1850s. It was found that rock oil could be distilled into a number of fractions and that one of those, kerosene, was ideal as lamp oil.

Figure 3 The production of whale oil in the 19th Century follows a classic Hubbert curve with production dwindling as the stock of whales in the oceans was depleted. Chart source Ugo Bardi.

This represents one of the great energy substitutions of human society. It was to be short-lived since electric lighting would soon take over from kerosene where the electricity was provided by combusting coal. Note that I use the term substitution and not transition since there was a direct substitution of one energy source for the other and whales ceased to be a part of Man’s energy supply mix. Without the discovery and use of rock oil it seems likely that whales would have become extinct in the 19th Century.

Saving The Forests

Prior to the mid nineteenth Century the main fuel source used by Man was forest wood (Figure 4). Wood (biomass) continues to be an important fuel today throughout the developing world.

Figure 4 The development of Man’s energy supplies has seen the sequential addition of coal, oil, gas, hydro and nuclear to the energy mix. In discussing energy transition, it is wrong to assume that a new energy source replaces what went before. The main pattern is one of addition, not substitution or replacement. Data from Vaclav Smil and BP as compiled by Rembrandt Koppelaar.

Population growth and progressive industrialisation throughout Europe led to wholesale deforestation of the Continent (Figure 5). And then in the mid-nineteenth Century we learned how to burn and mine coal on a grand scale powering the industrial revolution. We can but speculate what might have occurred had this not happened. It seems likely that Europeans would have spread themselves around the globe plundering resources on an even grander scale than took place at that time.

Figure 5 Data on deforestation is hard to find. This slide from a surprisingly interesting presentation by Sir Mark Walport shows the impact of 2500 years of felling trees in Europe. It was to a large extent the quest for natural resources that sent Europeans around the World in the centuries that followed and that sent Adolf Hitler East in 1941. Our current system of international trade and financial deficits may be imperfect but it seems preferable to the system of plunder that it replaced.

What did happen is that we learned to use coal, then oil and natural gas and ultimately nuclear power. Harnessing the power of fossil fuels provided Man with energy slaves to do work on our behalf. It led directly to the progressive development of the highly sophisticated society we live in today where, life expectancy, health and comfort far exceed levels of 100 years ago for billions of souls. It allowed us to achieve this whilst largely abolishing slavery and ending our dependency on forest wood as a fuel.

When FF runs scarce in a country this can cause great harm to the environment as we saw in Indonesia in 2003. Indonesia was once a member of OPEC and exported oil. But owing to population growth, increased prosperity and then a down turn in oil production, Indonesia found itself facing oil imports. Donning a Green cloak, Indonesia turned to biofuels in the form of palm nut oil, and set about burning virgin rain forest and orang-utans to make way for the plantations.

Those who fail to see the staggering benefits brought to Man through using FF are blinded by dogma. Those who argue that FF should be phased out are making an argument to end prosperity for all.

The Population Paradox

Whilst I argue here, and many others have argued before me, that FF has enabled the human race to flourish, we have been so successful in doing so that over 7 billion souls on planet Earth is now viewed by many as the greatest threat to our continued existence. It is certainly true that there are a multitude of problems that are not evenly distributed about the Earth. These include water shortages, food shortages and malnutrition, air and water pollution, deforestation, social and civil unrest, spreading conflict, displaced persons, infectious diseases and their spread. These are all problems caused by too many people combined with inadequate social, political and economic structures to deal with a rapidly changing world. While certain aspects of air pollution in China and plastics pollution of ocean gyres may be attributed directly to FF, by and large FF are the solution to these problems, not their cause, for example creating clean water supplies and sanitation requires energy as does food production. It is a lack of energy and other resources that lies at the heart of many of the major issues that cause real hardship around the world. It is therefore a mark of extraordinary ignorance and stupidity to believe that withholding these resources may lead to solutions.

The problem of course is that we have become too successful at resolving these issues for many and that inevitably leads to more, not less people and a compounding of the very problems that we are attempting to resolve. Population controls are a subject ducked by virtually all OECD political leaders and organisations. Over population and poverty lies at the heart of many of the major issues confronting humanity and yet no one is prepared to confront this issue. It is certainly an extremely difficult issue to confront and not easily solved.

My own view is that natural evolutionary forces will see global population peak this century followed by decline. That is what the UN central forecast shows. This may happen via the spread of prosperity in some parts and by the spread of deprivation, disease, hunger and war in others. But what is widely viewed as a population problem, will resolve itself in response to various pressures.  A falling global population will present a whole new set of problems for humanity that we will address when the time comes. There will be a growing acceptance that economic growth, welfare, free healthcare and pensions were all temporary aberrations made possible by abundant and cheap FF. As those resources run scarce this century humanity will struggle to maintain the living standards of the past. There is no need to artificially create a major trauma for humanity today by forced withdrawal from the FF era upon which virtually all of our prosperity is based.

An argument can be made for leaving some FF for future generations but that is not the argument being made by Green anti-capitalists.

Past Energy Transitions

Finally, a quick note about past energy transitions as illustrated in Figure 4. Let me repeat what Pope Francis had to say:

We know that technology based on the use of highly polluting fossil fuels – especially coal, but also oil and, to a lesser degree, gas needs to be progressively replaced without delay.

The first key observation from Figure 4 is that energy transition is via addition not substitution. In 150 years we have not replaced any of our major sources of energy with another at the system level. At the smaller scale oil fired power generation may have been replaced by coal and then by natural gas, but that merely freed up some oil or coal for use elsewhere. The second key observation is that “energy transition” has normally followed thermodynamic and economic laws where the new offered advantages over the old. It is therefore in my opinion sheer folly to believe and to propose that FF based technolgies can be replaced en-mass by much inferior, environment wrecking, more expensive renewable energy flows.

Figure 6 Millions visit the gold-plated Vatican every year, arriving in jet aircraft from all over the world, consuming vast amounts of oil and according to Pope Francis creating risks to the stability of Earth’s atmosphere.


Certain readers may read my bio and then seek to make scurrilous claims that I am somehow wedded to and supported by the FF industries. This is not true. I do however have holdings in certain oil companies and I do object to Green pressure groups trying to talk down the price of energy companies in general. My analysis and opinions are based upon my understanding of thermodynamics, economics and human society. Comments will be heavily moderated. I cannot lay claim to the truth. And so if anyone can demonstrate in a quantitative way how we can migrate away from FF to alternatives with a net benefit to society then please make your case.

I made my alternative energy plan some time ago:

Energy Matters’ 2050 pathway for the UK

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77 Responses to Fossil Fuels and Mankind

  1. Euan: An excellent and timely post.

    If I had lived in the age before fossil fuels I would now almost certainly be dead, as would a lot of the people who delight in telling us how fossil fuels are destroying the Earth.

    • Willem Post says:


      During the winter of 44 – 45, we lived without electricity, without water, except from a fire hydrant once a week, without coal, oil, gas, etc; the cost of a loaf of bread was a week’s pay on the black market, courtesy of the German Third Reich.

      People were starving, died, were being buried in trench graves by the dozens every day, as there was no wood to make caskets. The Netherlands, deforested before the war, would normally import wood from Norway and Sweden.

      That is what life would be like without fossil fuel.

      • Ralph says:

        That is what life will be like without fossil fuels. Limits to growth, population overshoot, die off.

    • Roger,

      “how fossil fuels are destroying the Earth.” – how is “having a lot of people with a high energy consumption and rich lifestyles” in opposition with the destruction of biosphere?

      We can extract the energy resource stocks accumulated over millions and billions of years, increase the earth carrying capacity for a while, while undermine the structure and functioning of global ecosystems in the process, which will enhance the not-so-distant future demise of globalised/indutrialized civilization we have created.

      Clearly, FFs did everything Euan mentions in the post (thats why we use them!), while they are also destroying the livable climate. Not contradition here, IMHO.



      • A C Osborn says:

        Could you remind us again how FFs are “destroying the livable climate” please?

      • Euan Mearns says:

        Alex, I’m happy to see you commenting here again after several weeks absence:-)

        Your comment here I believe hits a similar point to Kit. And that is how to distill the impact of 7 billion souls created by FF from the direct use of those FF on the environment.

        The former I believe is more serious but is largely glossed over. Inoculation and antibiotics have also contributed in a large way to population growth. Would you advocate that these too should be withdrawn in the interest of reducing population?

        I don’t mean to put you in a difficult spot, but its is a serious issue. A lot of people managed badly is a problem, but everything we do is designed to create more people.

        • Euan,

          frankly, I don’t know what to do. As of now (I am 35) I plan not to have children. Might that change, if I feel terribly lonely? Who knows… (instincts are very strong!)

          I try to reduce my energy consumption as much as possible, but I could eat less meat… one could always do more. Like spending less time commenting 🙂

          But even if I reduce my consumption, there are hords of other people who are happy to take “my” share and little bit more.

          In this sense, I really think people are as selfish as you can imagine. Can I blame them? No. Is it sad? Yes.



          • Ralph says:

            As of this week I am 53.
            I have not had children, but I have adopted two. I do my bit to cut consumption for my family whilst following the middle class standard of living I am expected to maintain for appearances sake, it is hard to justify not spending on gadgets for my kids but my wife says ‘They need to understand new technology so they can learn to cope with the world they will grow up in’.
            She knows my vision of the future but does not think it through. It is hard enough to get them to look after themselves (they have significant emotional trauma from their neglect as infants) and telling them ‘life is going to get a lot harder’ is not a message they could take on board right now.

            I have been vegetarian for 20 years, but I graze too much on processed food and grow very little of my own. We can all do better.

            I am now in a position where I can ‘collapse now and avoid the rush’, as I am being made redundant, and my coding skills are outdated in the current market. I can choose to be poor and spend the time repairing my children’s trauma, or I can work like a dog to re-skill and stay in the rat race. Tough choice.

            It is not about sustainability. Our way of life will not be sustained. It is about resilience, and being mentally and physically prepared to cope with change for the worse.

  2. Harry Fischer says:

    Roger, counterfactuals are strange. Surely it’s true that if anyone alive today had instead “lived in the age before fossil fuels,” i.e., more than 200 years ago, they would by now be dead. So what? With or without fossil fuels, no one lives to 200. But yes, Euan’s surely right that a huge number of people are anti-fossil fuels without having the faintest idea of the alternatives. And that population growth is the elephant in the room that no one wants to acknowledge is there.

    • Euan Mearns says:

      I think Roger is referring to life expectancy. He is over 70 and reckons that had he been born 100 years earlier that he would not have lived as long. The increase in life expectancy in the OECD has been stunning.

      Since 1900 the global average life expectancy has more than doubled and is now approaching 70 years.

      • That is indeed what I was referring to. With a life expectancy of ~40 years at birth I would now be over thirty years dead had I been born 100 years earlier. Thank you, fossil fuels.

        • Ralph says:

          My grandmother was born in 1883 (in relative poverty) and lived to 100. My parents, dad died at 91 and mum is now that age. I am 53 now, but will call myself lucky if I see 80. My children hopefully will live beyond the age of oil (2080+) and might be lucky enough to see the 22nd century,

    • Ed says:

      I climbed with a bloke last year who was an anti-fracking activist. I was interested to find out how much he really knew about energy so I said to him, ‘we all don’t like what fracking does to the environment but we’re desperate. Our civilisation is totally dependant on fossil fuel extraction’. His reply was interesting. He was adamant that our current civilisation was not dependant on fossil fuels and that we had a choice not to use them because mankind would find other energy sources to replace fossil fuels. Like what? I asked him. His reply ‘from water but the oil industry is keeping the technology secret’.

      Renewables, Nuclear; we can now add Water to the list. 😉

      • donb says:

        It’s the other way around. In many places it takes energy to retrieve water and make it drinkable.

        • Ed says:

          Maybe I didn’t make myself clear enough. This bloke didn’t know anything about energy and how crucial fossil energy is. He was in denial, just like the majority of people. In 200 years time we will be back burning wood for fuel and using horses to do our heavy work for us. The choice is whether we have lots of defunct wind turbines and solar panels or lots of 100 mile exclusion zones round our defunct but highly radio active former Nuclear plants. In the mean time we are increasing world population to 10+ Billion regardless.

          • A C Osborn says:

            So in 1815 if you heard someone tell you that with Human expansion we would not have enough horses & donkeys to do all the heavy labour would you have believed them?
            If they said we would not be able to grow enough crops to keep up with increasing population, would you have believed them?
            Did they or you have a crystal ball or a time machine?

            Our biggest problem is that our leaders ave turned their back on Science, Tecnology and our greatest thinkers.

          • Leo Smith says:

            Why on earth wouold you need a 100 mile exclusions zone round a defunct nuclear plant?

            Even chernobyl is safe at a few hundred meters by now

          • Roberto says:

            ‘lots of 100 mile exclusion zones round our defunct but highly radio active former Nuclear plants.’

            An example of balanced, factual description of anti-nuclear stance, based on popular galore.
            Not even Chernobyl with it’s completely destroyed RBMK or Fukushima with it’s 3 fused BWRs have 100 miles exclusion zones.
            Try harder.


          • Euan Mearns says:

            He wasn’t in denial, he was quite simply ignorant. The vast majority of our population, politicians and press are so. The question needs to be asked how this propaganda machine that has brain washed so many into believing that energy can be magiced out of nothing came into being?

            Thermodynamics rule the world of energy, not Green make believe.

          • Warren Bork says:

            You mention you were agreeing with your friend about ‘fracking’ I am curious to know if YOU know anything about energy with a comment like that.
            Please show us credible data where fracking is, or was responsible for any environmental damage. I live in the heart of energy-producing Western Canada, and I know that the technology known as fracking has been around for 3-5 decades. It isn’t some new fad technology that nobody knows how to use. Idiots like Matt Damon making foolish movie-esque ‘documentaries’ on fracking like “Gasland’ do nothing but inspire fear and misinformation. I wish people would learn the technical details about what, and how fracking is and takes place in the real world.
            Very deep holes (2000-3000 feet) are drilled into shale-like strata that contains the gas. These holes are double cased in concrete for most of that depth. Then a slurry of mud and water is pumped down the hole and when the pipe is full, they pressurize it to crack the gas bearing shale to release the trapped gas. All this happens thousands of feet below water aquifers. There has never been proven a case where fracking has contaminated anybody’s water source. And, they have been using this technology for a very long time before the Hollywood set has made it their cause celeb.

  3. Pingback: Fossil Fuel and the Fools that Find It Frightful | Louis Hissink's Crazy World

  4. Matthew Nayler says:

    I am not so sure that the population growth issue is really so difficult – easily available contraception AND equality between the sexes has always done the trick where tried in the past. What is there to be against? Iran saw its fertility rate fall from 7 births per woman in 1979 to 1.9 in 2006 just on the easy availability of contraception combined with women increasingly being educated and entering the jobs market and so contributing to a couple’s income, increasing the woman’s standing within the relationship and the wider society. Couples still married young and the pressure was on to produce baby number one but there then developed a gap averaging seven years before progressing to baby number 2 (for those couples that had a second child). Reversing the number of per capitas has to be easier than reversing the energy use per capita.

  5. Flocard says:

    One day, following a meeting to choose a professor at the Nimes university, I (I am a physicist)) on the train back to Montpellier with a colleague professor of biology.
    Through the windows we could see the hills and low mountains in the north which mark the south end of the Massif Central. He made me notice how green they were with a cover of medium to large size trees overtaking gradually over the years the traditionnal poor local shrub vegetation. (garrigue)
    As I am not from the area, he added : “you know. in recent times, only 70 years ago, we had here a period in which we lived entirely according to the presently much advertised “bio” culture. It lasted from 1940 to 1944 when France virtually had no petrol and no coal since the little it could get was seized by the Germans for their war effort. To heat their homes or fabricate gas (gazogène) to power their modified cars, people went out to cut the trees. After only four years, the hills which today you are seeing green, were barren and yellow under the sun. It took an important effort of the forestry administration to gradually recreate a vegetation cover and save the land. On top of that we still need the fuel of the planes and firetrucks to ensure that these covers are not destroyed every summer.”

  6. Stuart says:

    The problem with fossil fuels is that people simply do not understand just how good they are.

    For example, 1 liter of gasoline contains 60% more hydrogen than 1 liter of pure liquid hydrogen. Think about that for a second. Pure liquid hydrogen…

    I understand people want to reduce the worlds CO2 emissions but the reality is a little bit different.
    Energy isn’t manna from heaven, it works if it’s economically viable and it only works in the real world if it’s economically competitive. If it isn’t competitive then someone will outcompete you and your economy will shrivel and die.

    I would like to cut back on working for a living, by going to work I emit too much stress into society. My stress emissions are harmful to the environment and the health of others, in order to save my sanity (and by extension the entire world) the government needs to do more. What I need is a government subsidy so I can spend the rest of my days on a yacht floating up and down the mediterranean, meandering from Monte Carlo to Casablanca and back. The government should do this for everyone and we should aim to reduce harmful stress emissions to zero by 2050. It’s only sensible to sign this into law immediately.

    If the government provides me with a heavy subsidy, it will encourage more people to stop working and join my sailing club. Then all of our children will be able to grow up in a world with much happier parents.

    Our children’s future is at stake here, don’t let big business (which is majority owned by my pension provider) get in the way of the clean utopian world we all deserve. It is nothing short of an outrage that some luddites still go to work and experience stress when they should be in the subtropics sailing on a yacht. We need to elect a government that will force these people out of their work environment and enact laws that mandate they spend their time in the tropics on government provided yachts.

    I urge everyone to sign up to the Sunseeker political party (who are a serious party), so that we can mandate the use of large yachts to avoid a catastrophic mental health breakdown of the adult population. The only way to save society is to force everyone out of work and into sailing.

    Stress is the biggest risk facing our civilization and we must limit stress levels to just 2 Holmes-Rahe points or face the certainty of a severe nuclear winter, and the ensuing famine, mass extinction.

    And for any deniers out there, all scientist agree that stress makes people angry and that angry people start fights. Computer modelling has extrapolated that current stress trends will escalate into full blown nuclear warfare before the end of the 21st Century.

    They are 95% sure of it.

  7. Lars says:

    I find figure 4 a bit surprising. It seems the use of biomass/biofuels peaked in about year 2000 and is lower now. How can that be? Hasn`t the use of these fuels increased in OECD countries in the last years and does this mean that poor countries are in the process of substituting biomass with fossil fuels?

    Also a comment about the difference in forestation between 1000 B.C and 1500 A.D. Europeans in the Middle Ages were subject to the Little Ice Age with a shorter growing season than now and less CO2 in the athmosphere. I assume part of the deforestation is due to a harsher climate than in the Bronze Age. People would struggle to keep warm during winters.
    Now the problem in some European countries seems to be overgrowing caused by less animal grazing and more CO2. I do not advocate the folly of chopping down a tree, make pellets and burn the equivalent of that tree in a second or so in for instance Drax, but no doubt there is room for a lot more biomass use in parts of Europe, ideally used locally in small wood burners and in district heating.

    • Stuart says:

      If you read the report you will see that people cut trees down to make make space for farms.

      It was the spread of agriculture which caused the continental deforestation of Europe.

      Agriculture first emerged in the Levant (Lebanon/Syria) and began to spread out in all directions, but the Atlantic rains and the temperate climate made continental Europe a more fertile pasture than the dryness of North Africa or the Middle East. So it was Europe where agriculture brought the greatest economic return and generated the greatest surpluses. This meant fewer people had to work in agriculture and more people could live in villages, towns and then cities. It was the European tribes whose economy grew fastest as a result with their population densities increasing in key locations such as river mouths (where all the major cities are today).

      When the bubonic plague swept through the continent and killed 1/3rd of the population the forests made a temporary comeback but it didn’t last more than a few generations.

      It was very much a slash and burn, the shear abundance of timber is probably the reason why Europeans became the great seafarers and set out to discover the world.

      • Lars says:

        Stuart and Euan, thanks for the answers.

        Ok, to tell you about my use of “biomass”. In my house I have 4 firewood heaters (2 in each floor), but I normally don`t use all of them simultaneously 🙂 One of them is what we call a “koksovn”, direct translation would be “coke oven”.
        In the 50s and 60s coke along with firewood was the main source of heating in Norw. homes before it was first gradually substituted with oil burners and then electric resistance heating. Now there are not that many of these coke heaters left although you can easily use firewood also. Also not many oil heaters left btw.

        I love to heat with firewood, it`s the “best” heat and I source the logs locally and do all the work myself. This year it was extremely local, in fact right behind my house. I normally use 5-6 modern Norw. cords annually, that`s about 12-15 m2 including air when stacked. This year I spent 6-7 liters of petrol for the chain saw, about 15 liters of diesel for the tractor/wood chopper and a couple of liters of chain saw oil. I would say that gives a fantastic EROEI.

        I also have a project ongoing with an old combined waste and oil heater used for central heating, it was made in the 50s. Fortunately I got hold of it for free a few years back right before it was supposed to be scrapped.
        Basically this is a water tank on top with a furnace chamber in the bottom where the waste was burnt (when available) but most of the heat I suppose came from the oil heater which I have now removed. There is also a 2 kw electric heater available.

        The flue where the oil heater was mounted is now substituted with an extended flue which when finished will be coupled to an ordinary firewood burner in the room next by (through the wall). Thus the hot smoke from the firewood heater will heat the water by going upwards an internal flue through the water tank. This flue will be extended through the ceiling and coupled to the flue of one of the firewood heaters in the first floor. In this way I will catch 3 flies with one stone: It will provide hotwater, heat much of the ground floor and help heat the first floor also.
        If I have been away from home and need hotwater quickly I can use firewood directly and/or waste from the household (in the furnace chamber) and also combine it with the electric heater, and of course when there is no need to use the firewood heater in the first place these are possible options.

        Most of the job is done and the heater is in place but I am going to renew the flooring of the room where the firewood heater is supposed to be first.
        I believe in small, local solutions like these. One main reason improved or alternative solutions are not more widely used I think is due to the simple fact that energy is still so cheap! My neighbour is an excellent example. In his house he has exactly the same opportunity like me. Even though being lucky and find an old heater like I did could be troublesome he could instead buy a combined firewood and electric water heater (which are available on demand in Norway), and with a little conversion use the smoke from one of his firewood burners. He has seen my solution and likes it but tells me it doesn`t make economic sense because electricity is cheap. He is right in a way, but I love the idea of being partially energy self sufficient AND having access to hotwater even though the grid is down. I also see it as a future insurance against higher energy prices (including electricity) in general. It is also a very low tech simple and safe solution.


        • Leo Smith says:

          Compare the population density of Norway with that of the United Kingdom, and then realise why one size fits all EU legislation is insane.

          And why we cant follow Norwegians solutions 🙁

          • Lars says:

            Leo, about the EU I agree totally. Insane is a fitting word.

            About solutions my basic proposal is that we must use the resources or primary energy we have now in a better way, more effectively. Of course I realise the difference in population density and so on, but what I do with my water heater could be done extensively in many other countries with a much higher population density also. To name a few countries like France, Austria, Switzerland, Germany which are heavily forested. I have lived in the German countryside and firewood is a surprisingly common source of heat there. It`s not the solution to our future energy problems, but it`s a small scale part solution that is much better than nothing at all.

          • Roberto says:

            Lars, thanks for the interesting description of life in Norway, a country I dream of visiting one day… I just wanted to add/specify that burning wood is one of the most dangerous activities as long as human health is concerned, regardless of three energy it delivers.


    • Euan Mearns says:

      I think the details of the biomass numbers need to be treated with some scepticism. But it is useful to show that a significant portion of global primary energy still comes from bio-mass. Much of this will be sustainable in rural areas of India and Africa.

      But then you get on to logging and wholesale clearance of rain forests which I see as a MAJOR problem since these are the principal sink for CO2. And I think the more recent clearing of hardwood forests in N America to make wood pellets would not show up in stats that stop in 2010.

      I have a couple of wood burners fuelled by off cuts from a local saw mill. Its a great way to keep warm and very cheap. I pay about £70 for a couple of m3 of logs + £25 for delivery (a three mile drive). I look at all this wood and consider the labour involved if I were to gather and chop this myself, especially if I did it without using a vehicle and chain saw. Using a vehicle and chain saw and axe it would take me several days hard labour. Without, mechanisation I dare say it would become a full time job collecting fuel just to stay warm in winter.

      • It doesn't add up... says:

        I’m not sure how sustainable biomass is as and energy source in areas of Africa and India with rapidly growing populations. Firewood crises have already been noted in recent decades (especially before the greening of the Sahara and rise in growth on the back of CO2). That’s why there is a good market for kerosene in these places – and not for fuelling aircraft (although that too is growing). This perspective from about 1990 (i.e. pre Kyoto) makes interesting reading:

        The concluding paragraph begins:

        The development of modern fuels such as coal, petroleum, and natural gas should be more fully explored and developed.

  8. Owen says:

    An excellent post. There is nothing for nothing in this world, no free lunches. Fossil fuels has increased air pollution, no doubt, but this is more than offset by the benefits you have outlined. One would think that the increased air pollution would act as a retard on life expectancy, especially those who live close to power plants, but humans seem to be able to cope with this new problem :

    What all this growth and prosperity has brought is a culture of taking our success from fossil fuels for granted, especially in the younger generation (of which I am one). The link between economic prosperity and fossil fuels has been broken. There is a culture of free lunches where people think
    you can have nothing for nothing i.e. free, clean, reliable, and durable forms of energy. This naive form of thinking is made more popular by its endorsement by world leaders such as Obama. No doubt his 18th and 19th century predecessors would have been singing the praises of coal and oil generation.

    There is an economic term which can be neatly used to show the benefits of FF – EROI :

    And what has happened with the advent of renewables is that it has led to increased waste and increased diminution of FF – the exact opposite of what they were intended to do.

    “And to get to the stage where activist groups like Greenpeace can fly a bunch of unemployed people to Lima on a jet plane to desecrate an ancient structure in a protest against fossil fuels, you probably need something like an EROI of 20:1. And that’s the trouble with fuel sources with such high EROI – it leads to large levels of waste. And the plans for large scale wind farms, storage units, pylons and interconnectors (all require significant use of fossil fuels and rare earths) are now becoming just that – wasteful projects.”

  9. donb says:

    I note that strongly developed countries England, Germany, and the US have similar curves on the figure 1 graph, but the US shows twice the per capita energy consumption. Is that higher consumption across all forms of energy use, or is it concentrated in one or two? My guess is that transportation energy is especially different.

  10. Luís says:

    At the same time we know that whales were almost hunted to extinction and this is often held up as an example of over exploitation of a finite resource. Post-peak whale oil production saw prices rise and become volatile suggesting a continued demand for whale oil that could not be met by supply. But the market situation is made more complex by the fact that just in the nick of time for whales, rock oil was discovered in Pennsylvania in the 1850s.

    This is a popular belief that has little adherence to reality. The XIX century Peak Whale Oil was a very important event precisely because it followed the traditional Hubbert curve (e.g. Verhulst growth model). The industry reached the limits of the technology around 1850 and simply hit the supply curve head. The easy whales were over and from then on whaling ships had to take ever longer trips to fill their hulls. Melville wrote a great deal about this in Moby Dick (a great book that few seem to read these days). He explains for instance how whale packs where changing their behaviour to reduce killings, older or wounded whales would voluntarily stay behind letting the young and healthy escape. Melville also hints at changes in breeding behaviour, some know nurseries were apparently being abandoned for safer latitudes. Melville takes an entire chapter reflecting on the possibility of extinction, correctly concluding that to be a remote hypothesis; whale hunting was nowhere comparable to the mass killings of bisons taking place in North America by that time.

    Whale hunting exploded after the II World War, with the whaling fleet transitioning to diesel. In the 1960s the number of killings reached five times the levels of the1850s. Then the sperm whale was likely a threatened species:

    Fossil fuels can be great things, but they for sure did not save the Sperm Whale; much to the contrary.

    The sperm whale remains today one of the most successful species on the planet, with a population counted in the hundreds of thousands.

  11. Peter Mott says:

    Euan, I find your figure 2 most interesting (you have posted it before). This is because of the maximum power line that suggests that there is a linear relation between maximum income and energy use. I assume the BP report provides the energy consumption data. But from where did you get the income data?

  12. This is another effect of FFs (but otherwise, all is good!):

    “Even under our assumptions, which would tend to minimize evidence of an incipient mass extinction, the average rate of vertebrate species loss over the last century is up to 114 times higher than the background rate.”

    Gerardo Ceballos, Paul R. Ehrlich, Anthony D. Barnosky, Andrés García, Robert M. Pringle and Todd M. Palmer, Accelerated modern human–induced species losses: Entering the sixth mass extinction, Sci. Adv. 2015; 1:e1400253 19 June 2015


      • Ed says:

        Alex was referring to species going EXTINCT. A C your reference stated 18,000 new species were being DISCOVERED not being created.

        Can you see the difference there A C ? You can’t simply subtract the number of species being made extinct from the number of species being discovered. They are two completely different variables. In all probability there are thousands of species going extinct that we don’t even know about.

    • Alex:

      According to the Center for Biological Diversity:

      Scientists estimate we’re now losing species at 1,000 to 10,000 times the background rate, with literally dozens going extinct every day.

      Let’s assume a dozen species a day. At this rate 2,088 species will have gone extinct since the beginning of 2015. Can you name any of them for us?

      • Leo Smith says:

        I believe the Lefticus Millibandicus is now extinct,. as is the Particus Liberella Democraticus.

      • Ed says:

        What relevance is being able to name the species going extinct got to do with the debate, Roger?

        • A C Osborn says:

          I suggest that you look back through the history of this forum, as the so called “extinctions” were discussed at length on a previous post by Roger.
          When it came down to actully naming the extinct species it transpired most of them couldn’t be named and of those that were they were no longer extinct, they had just gone missing for a while or moved to other locations.
          Hence Roger’s question.
          As you later say any extinctions that do take place are much more likely to be due to loss of habitat, amd mostly through Gree dreams, like Palm Oil etc.

        • Well, Alexander Ač claims that species extinction is another effect of fossil fuels, and fossil fuels are the topic of the debate.

          The point I was making in a roundabout way is that all these disappearing species are imaginary. They are not found in the wild. They exist only on the hard drives of biologists’ computers. That’s why none of them can be named.

          I’m hoping I will live long enough to see some of the biologists who feed this junk science to the public called to account, but doubt that I shall.

          • If you read the paper that Alexander links to, it bases it’s assessment on observed extinctions as it’s most conservative estimate (although does also assess unobserved i.e. “imaginary” extinctions). Using those, since 1500, vertebrate species have been going extinct at a rate of ~0.65 species per year, and since 1900 it’s at a rate of ~1.72. These compare with a background rate of 0.08.

            Clearly a much lower rate than given in your link, Roger, but then I’m not sure where their numbers come from and therefore whether they’re exaggerated.

            The most recent paper makes clear that, though, that even conservatively, humans have massively accelerated extinctions and particularly since the industrial revolution. FF may not *directly* cause extinctions, but they have facilitated our impact on the biosphere. I think it would be hard to deny that!

          • Euan Mearns says:

            Kit, you hit a fundamental philosophical point. I certainly will not argue against the “fact” that 7 billion humans are causing immense environmental harm. I would start with over fishing of the oceans and lead up with deforestation. These are very serious issues that are not being addressed, IMO because the focus is on 400 ppm CO2 in the atmosphere where looking at raw data I find it hard to distill the negative impacts from the positive impacts from background.

            The collapse of seabird populations on the W coast of Scotland and salmon populations are likely due to over fishing – but they are all too readily blamed on climate change. As a scientist, if you want to solve problems you have to identify the causes and effects reliably.

            Blaming the secondary activities of 7 billion souls on FF is not a constructive way to go. The fact is that we have 7 billion and will be going higher. The key challenge is to manage that number without wrecking the planet’s surface.

          • Clearly a much lower rate than given in your link, Roger, but then I’m not sure where their numbers come from and therefore whether they’re exaggerated.

            Of course they’re exaggerated. A dozen species a day equals 4,380 extinctions/year. Two dozen a day equals 8,760 extinctions/year. A dozen dozen equals 52,560 extinctions/year, at which rate the 1.73 million identified species on Earth will all be gone by 2050. These numbers are orders of magnitude higher than the 1.72 vertebrate extinctions/year estimate you cite, which works out to only about 50 extinctions/year even when prorated over all 1.73 million identified species.

            As to where the numbers come from, almost certainly they came from computer simulations based on species area theory, a methodology which Ceballos et al deserve at least some credit for not using.

    • Ed says:

      You can’t blame the extinction of species on FFs. We humans are the culprit. FFs just made it easier for us to accomplish it at an increased rate..

    • Javier says:

      Wrong again, Alexander.

      The 6th mass extinction has nothing to do with FF and all to do with humans. Do a search for articles by Anthony D. Barnosky, one of the authors of that article. He has several articles on the megafauna extinction that started 50,000 years ago when the modern humans appeared. Amazing how many species we were able to kill with axes, spears and arrows, including all our cousins Homo species still around.


  13. learning says:

    Great write up…

    What do you think of coal?
    My opinion is that it is going up as well

    • Peter Mott says:

      I did a little piece on Egypt’s plans for future energy – mostly because of a huge gas turbine contract they made withg Siemens. It turns out they are expanding coal as well – even converting cement manufacture to coal from gas. The piece is here if you have an idel moment

  14. Javier says:

    Fossil fuels were a curse disguised as a blessing. Here we are now, less than 200 years later, 7.3 E9 people on the planet totally dependent on a resource that is about to become scarce in a matter of mere decades. Yes, totally successful; yes, probably doomed as we lack any viable alternative to sustain ourselves in a diminishing energy environment.

    If we try to slow down and reduce our use of FF, we will damage our economy and probably precipitate the downfall, and if we don’t slow down and continue increasing our use of FF (as we are doing), we will anticipate the downfall. Damned if we do and damned if we don’t.

    As the end of FF is already written, the only rational thing to do would be to concentrate our resources (specially the remaining FF) and ability in reducing the consequences of our future forced weaning from FF. But a rational species we are not. We continue flying as a fly against a window.

    Besides, it is easy to take cheap shots at the Pope. If he doesn’t address global warming the Church is anti-science, if he does he is lending support to dubious scientific claims that are politically motivated. Why should the Church have its own scientific view if it doesn’t conduct scientific research? In matters not related to theology or religion, the Pope as a social leader should just accept what is generally believed by scientists and society. It is the role of scientists and society to find the answers to those questions.

    Can you imagine the outcry if the Pope would dare to say anything different from the consensus AGW? We could just watch the use of the word “Galileo” shoot up in Google.


  15. I think this is very nice and interactive explanation of what is causing recent global warming. And yes, it has a relevance to FF use:



  16. Jeff says:

    This is an illogical article. I’ve never seen any but cranks claim that FF have not benefited mankind enormously and yet that is the proposition you seem to argue against. You note that FF allowed humanity to expand population hugely and claim that FF have prevented extinctions. Yet if there had been no FF we would most likely have been resource limited long ago; there be no modern technology, the population would still be small and its ability to exterminate other species would be correspondingly small. Maybe whales would still be hunted, but hunting them to extinction using sail power would be much harder. We stopped hunting them only because FF allowed us to hunt them even more efficiently leading to dwindling numbers and an international moratorium.

    A common climate skeptic meme is that we can’t cut FF use because of the poors. As if somehow halving US FF use to European levels, or Europe halving its FF use would somehow harm the poor in sub-Saharan Africa. It is a nonsensical argument, as is the suggestion that our waste is justified because some crumbs fall off the table to the poors. And so is yours that “Those who argue that FF should be phased out are making an argument to end prosperity for all.” If we just stopped FF use tomorrow, that might be true, but “phase out” means gradual, as replacement technology allows. And for all your objection to it, for large parts of the world renewables are practical and not “environment wrecking”.

    Your treatment of the subject ignores completely the possible negative consequences of climate change caused by FF use. Maybe you deny the possibility of such change, in which case the omission fits your theme. If you don’t then the article is badly incomplete.

    • Peter Mott says:

      “but “phase out” means gradual, as replacement technology allows”. Not in the UK it doesn’t. We have a legally binding target enshrined in the Climate Change Act of 2008 to cut FF use by 80% by 2050. This is not conditional on new technologies being available.

    • Peter Mott says:

      “we can’t cut FF use because of the poor”. Well we can and we are. But the World Bank won’t fund poor countries in building coal power stations (the cheapest sort). That blocks their access to electricity. Or tries to. Asia Development Bank (Chinese one) will support coal so this attempt by the rich elites to keep the poor poor has failed there. But make no miustake they will keep trying.

    • A C Osborn says:

      So you want to deprive the world of cheap energy because of a “possibility?
      ” Maybe you deny the possibility of such change”
      Please provide us with the list of cheap “replacement technology” to replace FF?

    • Euan Mearns says:

      Jeff, you seem to be in denial about climate change. There is a consensus that much (perhaps 50%) of the temperature and climatic variance observed is down to natural climatic cycles. An empirical fact that flows from these observations is that Climate Sensitivity is likely of the order 1˚C. At that level there is literally no risk to Earth’s climate system. In fact the little warming that may occur combined with the definite benefits of CO2 fertilisation may have net benefit for Mankind.

      What is not logical or honest is to spend billions on “science”, reach this conclusion and then stand by the view that FFs need to be phased out anyway.

    • Jeff says:

      Peter, the solar energy falling on a relatively small square of desert could power the whole world. The technology for capturing this energy exists. There are political, technical and distributional problems accessing it but there is no reason why we can’t succeed if we want to. There’s also nuclear to add to the mix.

      Also, there are many sources of project funding including private equity, charities, development banks, government foreign aid, the World Bank etc. Each sets its own priorities. I’m sure there are generously funded charities (Coal for Africa perhaps) that support projects the World Bank turns down. If not one might wonder why, when this is apparently such a sure fire way of aiding poor people. Just the funding for coal projects available from climate science skeptics alone would, I think, be enough to raise most of Africa out of poverty.

      Euan, why not address the logical issues with your article rather than adding inaccuracy to error. Empirical fact and climate sensitivity do not belong in the same statement. Sensitivity is believed to lie somewhere between 1 and 5C; anyone who has given you certainty or “fact” has been misleading you. Study of climate over the last 40 years has not narrowed the estimated range of sensitivity. That is not comforting, quite the reverse. It means we really don’t know whether increasing CO2 will cause disaster. Cheer-leading for more of the same in the face of this distinctly odd.

      • Euan Mearns says:

        Sensitivity is believed to lie somewhere between 1 and 5C; anyone who has given you certainty or “fact” has been misleading you.


        Study of climate over the last 40 years has not narrowed the estimated range of sensitivity. That is not comforting, quite the reverse. It means we really don’t know whether increasing CO2 will cause disaster.

        Jeff, this pretty well sums up many of my prejudices. Are you not totally appalled by the fact that after 40 years and $ billions spent that we “seem” to be none the wiser? We are told about 97% agreement but are then not told that 97% agree that we haven’t a clue. I will concede that using the term “fact” is perhaps mis-placed and should be replaced with a probabilistic term. But no one has told me this I have found this out for myself at a number of different levels including some first principles research:

        and this

        • Jeff says:

          Euan, sorry, I missed your reply. I don’t have time right now to go through your links, but they look interesting and I’ll try to later. I would not use the word “appalled” as that is too judgmental of a whole field I know little about. If a lot of study has led to no narrowing of the range, it indicates that climate is too complex to be sure what happens when we double CO2. We do know that climate can change significantly and perhaps quickly, so being unable to say what happens when we hit it with essentially an impulse worries me greatly.

        • Jeff says:

          I looked at the first link. You show nicely that sunny days are warmer, as is perhaps well known. Beyond this, you imply that the UK can be used as a proxy for the earth for the purposes of calculating climate sensitivity; that the global effects of CO2 and feedbacks can be deduced from the UK record. That is an extraordinary basis from which to argue so confidently that climate sensitivity is so tightly constrained.

          Far from supporting your article, this does the reverse – reinforcing the negative impression left by the article’s existing logical failures (which I mentioned before).

          • Euan Mearns says:

            Na, we did it also for the whole of Earth using satellite cloud data and got the same result. Jeff the bar for commenting on this blog is pretty high, you my friend don’t really seem up to the job. Why don’t you try posting some evidence for CS being appreciably higher than 1. And I mean posting evidence not links to Green blah.

          • Jeff says:

            Where is your whole-earth study?

          • Euan Mearns says:


            Clive is a physicist who worked at JET Fusion and CERN. If you want to challenge the methodology and physics then fine. And you also need to be aware that CS of the order 1 to 1.5 fits with main stream IPCC thinking. Most of the empirical evidence points to this. Earth Science is by and large empirical. If models don’t fit observations then the models need to be revised.

          • Jeff says:

            Blocking my post? Not prepared to allow your study to be questioned or to defend it, eh? What is your game Mr Mearns? Why bother with all this supposed “research” if you have to hide behind your moderator’s pen to protect it?

          • Euan Mearns says:

            Jeff, the theme of this post is Fossil Fuels and Man. Its not about the impact of changing cloud cover on temperature that was published by Clive Best on another blog. I find your comments are devoid of technical content and merit. I have about 30 Green Trolls on comment moderation. Just imagine what the blog would be like if I didn’t.

          • peter2108 says:

            Well Euan I hope you don’t block Jeff. I think he is wrong but he is not rude and he doesn’t resort to trolling tricks.

          • Angus says:

            peter2108, Euan blocks “green trolls” as a matter of course. People are only free to post here if they don’t challenge Euan too strongly. Once you do, up go the shutters and nobody else knows about it. Here’s what I said earlier today for example:

            Euan, I criticized what I see as logical errors in your article.

            Instead of correcting the article you introduced the “fact” of climate sensitivity being 1.

            When I challenged that number you accept that 1 is wrong but point to your research that produced this questionable result.

            When I pointed out problems with using the UK as a global proxy, you pointed to research by you and Clive that purports to show global relationship between clouds and temperatures.

            And when I point out that the correlation that you claim lies at the heart of that research doesn’t in fact exist, you block that comment and further posts.

            Now you object to my questioning the research you linked to yourself and call me a green troll and claim there is no merit in what I say.

            All you needed to do was to address the logical issues in the original post and you wouldn’t have got yourself into such a mess.

      • Tom Moran says:

        Where is this magical, “relatively small square of desert”? Is it anywhere near Ivanpah? You see, if they had only built it twice as big they could’ve gotten half the generation predicted.

  17. Please Check out under news. There you will find two petitions to the 2016 Methodist General Conference to remove the subject of Global Warming and CO2 from the Methodist Discipline. It is a political and not a religious issue. Besides we have not had any warming for the last 12-18 years depending whose data you use. Fossil fuels are good for society not bad as many would infer.

  18. Nate Hagens says:

    quite faulty logic regarding the whales – had we used wind and wood there would be alot more whales alive today – and alot more types as well.
    the point in conclusion that energy transitions take a long time and happen from addition rather than substitution is an important one

    • Euan Mearns says:

      Nate, not sure I follow.

      had we used wind and wood there would be alot more whales alive today

      In 19th C it was not possible to use wind and wood to substitute for whale oil lighting. It was possible to use kerosene. The paradox arises from industrialisation based on FF that created a bigger steam driven whaling fleet and means for mass slaughter until rock oil came along and wealth enabled an enlightened environmental agenda simultaneous with adding risks to the environment.

      Did some species of whale go extinct? – genuine question.

Comments are closed.