The Myopia of a Carbon-Only Lens

The terms of the Energy and Environment debate must change, says Tinker

The terms of the Energy and Environment debate must change, says Tinker

Scott Tinker, director of the Bureau of Economic Geology at the University of Texas at Austin, will grant no quarter about either the history and benefits of energy in our lives or its potential to improve our future.

“Access to affordable, reliable energy is the foundation of modern economies,” he said.

This subject has been on his mind of late, for he has spent the last two years studying those who are, as he puts it, suffering from “energy poverty.”

Some 2.5 billion people worldwide live in some form of energy poverty today.

“Access to secure energy,” Tinker said – and he includes those in urban slums, “impacts all other major humanitarian issues, including hunger, shelter, clean water, education, healthcare, human migration, empowerment of women, and more. Those who do not have energy access suffer from energy poverty.”

For the past two years, he has been traveling the world to film “Switch On,” the follow-up to his award-winning “Switch,” a non-partisan effort to chronicle the 21st-century energy transition. “Switch On” focuses on the crisis of the aforementioned energy poverty in approximately a third of the world. The problems are enormous and the truculence on both sides primed, so he said we should, first off, stop the name-calling.

The Need for the ‘Radical Middle’

“We all have biases and are partisan, based on our own experiences. Some lean heavily toward industry and technology, others towards policy and regulatory, and others towards the environment,” he said.

He sees a need for both.

“In reality, each of these sectors has an important role to play, and finding the balance is vital. I call the overlap space the ‘radical middle,’ where things actually get solved with hard work, data, facts and compromise,” he said.

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The terms of the Energy and Environment debate must change, says Tinker

Scott Tinker, director of the Bureau of Economic Geology at the University of Texas at Austin, will grant no quarter about either the history and benefits of energy in our lives or its potential to improve our future.

“Access to affordable, reliable energy is the foundation of modern economies,” he said.

This subject has been on his mind of late, for he has spent the last two years studying those who are, as he puts it, suffering from “energy poverty.”

Some 2.5 billion people worldwide live in some form of energy poverty today.

“Access to secure energy,” Tinker said – and he includes those in urban slums, “impacts all other major humanitarian issues, including hunger, shelter, clean water, education, healthcare, human migration, empowerment of women, and more. Those who do not have energy access suffer from energy poverty.”

For the past two years, he has been traveling the world to film “Switch On,” the follow-up to his award-winning “Switch,” a non-partisan effort to chronicle the 21st-century energy transition. “Switch On” focuses on the crisis of the aforementioned energy poverty in approximately a third of the world. The problems are enormous and the truculence on both sides primed, so he said we should, first off, stop the name-calling.

The Need for the ‘Radical Middle’

“We all have biases and are partisan, based on our own experiences. Some lean heavily toward industry and technology, others towards policy and regulatory, and others towards the environment,” he said.

He sees a need for both.

“In reality, each of these sectors has an important role to play, and finding the balance is vital. I call the overlap space the ‘radical middle,’ where things actually get solved with hard work, data, facts and compromise,” he said.

More specifically, describing the energy transition as the switch from carbon-based fuels to non-carbon fuels, as many do, is divisive and unproductive.

“It attempts to pit the environment against the economy; the Left against the Right. Completely ignoring the potential impacts of CO2, methane and other atmospheric emissions is just as myopic as focusing only on the most extreme output from complex, non-linear, multi-variate model forecasts of the future.”

Here is the money shot.

“Both the economy and the environment must be solved for simultaneously,” he said.

Partisan Prejudice

The elephant in the field, if you will, is coal and oil.

It’s an easy piñata for critics.

“Simply stated, coal and oil are not the problem; the energy they provide has improved nearly all facets of the modern world. The emissions produced by their combustion – CO2, SOx, NOx, mercury, particulates – are an issue. So we must focus on the emissions,” he said.

The solution he said is not to throw out the baby or the bath water, much less the entire tub.

“By way of analogy, we would not eliminate food – another form of vital energy – just because growing it consumes vast amounts of water, requires fertilizers, depletes soils and impacts rivers and aquifer systems. Instead, we work to minimize these impacts.”

Tinker, who is also the Allday endowed chair in the Jackson School at the University of Texas-Austin, said that understanding the horizon, problems and solutions, will be found in that aforementioned radical middle.

“Completely ignoring the potential impacts of CO2, methane and other atmospheric emissions is just as myopic as focusing only on the most extreme output from complex, non-linear, multi-variate model forecasts of the future. Both the economy and the environment must be solved for simultaneously,” he reiterated.

Tinker will be speaking on this subject at this month’s NAPE Summit in Houston, in his presentation, “The Myopia of a Carbon-Only Lens.”

The conversation about the energy transition—this Switch—is inexorable, he said.

He’d like for all involved in the debate, which is most of us, to “grow up.”

“The energy transition is being described by some through a carbon only lens: climate change is caused by human CO2 emissions; the oil industry is to blame; and the answer is wholesale government intervention in energy and economic markets,” he explained.

“Not only is this political viewpoint myopic, it is fallacious,” Tinker added.

Enough Blame to Go Around

To that end, he said no form of energy collection is “renewable.”

“The energy landscape has been changing for millennia. From solar to grow plants and hay to feed animals; to wood for heating and cooking and wind for sailing; to coal (carbon); to oil (hydrocarbons); to hydro and natural gas (mostly hydrogen); to hydrogen, uranium, and thorium. We have recently added back some of the original forms of energy (solar, wind and biomass) to help supplement demand, mostly in poor urban areas and wealthy rural areas. From drilling rigs, pipelines and refineries, to dams and nuclear power plants, to solar panels, turbines and batteries, all forms of energy collection require extracting non-renewable materials from the earth and eventual disposal in landfills or oceans,” he said.

Tinker’s point is that if we are going to spend time pointing fingers, we’re going to run out of digits.

“We are all producers and consumers. If you want to go after oil industry CEOs whose companies produce energy, then you need to add CEOs from an endless list: technology, fashion, Hollywood, agriculture, automobiles, bitcoin, steel, cement, air transport, shipping, trucking, rail and all other major corporate consumers. Not a realistic, or even productive approach.”

The Switch Has Begun

He is sanguine about it happening, mostly because it already is

“For the one billion, mostly rural off-grid people without access to electricity, the transition has begun,” he said.

And it’s mostly, he said, as a result of distributed renewable energy, predominantly solar PV.

“Such systems provide electricity for such things as lights, radios, televisions, cell phones and water pumps for irrigation. But these are typically small individual panels, or micro grids serving community buildings.”

The challenge he believes is in the scaling up.

“And that will happen as micro markets develop, requiring more electricity, which will likely come from a grid-scale source. That is the transition.”

There is something else, too.

“It is critical that young people are armed with the facts about energy so they can think critically about the pros and cons of each form of energy: from lifting people out of poverty to broad environmental impacts of all forms of energy,” said Tinker.

Comments (4)

Looking forward to seeing Switch On
I really appreciate this article and some of Scott's recent presentations on YouTube too. AAPG, I hope you can do more to get this message out--to elevate it beyond politics (here, abroad and around the world). I hope there are opportunities for Mr. Tinker, AAPG, big corporations (O&G, Coal, Green, Nuclear, etc.), NGO's, and governments, etc. to come together to make impactful, meaningful, and lasting changes to address the energy and poverty paradox.
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2/19/2020 11:54:43 AM
and forgive the half star rating - the system is wacky!
See comment below.
2/13/2020 3:19:20 PM
Carbon-only lens is about much more
Thanks for a great interview, Scott - especially the comment that we must do both. I don't see this as an issue with sides, but rather as an opportunity to build a better future. Using carbon as a measuring stick does much more than create myopia. It is also a critical factor in understanding energy efficiency (whether related to fossil fuels or renewable component-metal extraction and processing), economics, and health. Katy makes an excellent case below for studying and considering these critical factors in the rapidly evolving energy market. I would, however, like to take exception to the continued use of the phrase "lifting people out of energy poverty." A more illuminating goal is to create energy equity. The World Economic Forum reports that in 2015, the wealthiest 10% of people in the world were responsible for creating almost 50% of total lifestyle consumption emissions. Thanks to the rapid development of technology - coupled with escalating efficiency - of renewable energy products, we now have the potential for equitable distribution of energy without doubling our global carbon emissions. Distributed energy resources are more effectively and affordably applied in off-grid, un-electrified areas, and make less economic sense in urban settings tied to an aging grid infrastructure. These early adopters of DERs, such as battery-backed solar, will soon be leading the way beyond the energy transition by using less energy more efficiently. Anyone with a millennial in the family has seen this happen during their lifetime in the banking industry. When was the last time your child wrote a check? Or used cash? It's not that either were bad or didn't serve their purpose in their time. It's just that something better and more efficient came along. So I agree with Scott - let's stop wasting time being pejorative about the past and focus on designing a pathway to the future.
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2/13/2020 10:47:06 AM
Changing terms of the climate/energy debate--Geoscientists offer solutions
Kudos to Scott Tinker for his recent article in the Explorer. In admonishing us all to 'grow up' and stop wasting time (and energy!) pointing fingers at various blame-ees, Scott points us toward a solution to navigating the current energy transition. No solutions are found in the current polarized debate between Big Oil ('so misunderstood, while just trying to light the world') and environmentalists/climate activists ('don't understand from whence their energy comes, while just trying to save the world'). The "Radical Middle" between these two extremes comprises a fundamental, scientifically-sound approach, one that our industry is well-trained to utilize. I strongly urge our focus on: 1) recognizing that all forms of energy (including carbon-based fuels) carry undeniable and calculable environmental impacts/costs, 2) quantifying those costs and their mitigation costs, not denying that they exist, 3) lifting 2.5 billion people out of energy poverty -- key to our humanity, not to mention our common global security, 4) critically evaluating energy systems AND solutions to balance environmental costs with economic benefits, 5) arming our youth with these facts as well as the critical analysis skills required to evaluate solutions. I disagree with Scott on a couple of issues. The phrase "carbon-only myopia" implies that non-carbon-based energy sources may carry environmental impacts of the same magnitude as those from carbon-based sources. This is misleading and sidesteps the fact that our dominant energy source is carbon-based. All five reports from the IPCC have calculated the impact of its utilization. We must "focus on emissions," as Scott states. Mitigation is necessary, urgent and facilitated by "government intervention"--a carbon tax called for by ExxonMobil, BP, Total & Shell (Rine, Feb. 2020 AAPG Bulletin.) Think back to the 1980s ozone hole, a global problem solved by world governments together "intervening." KJ McDonough, PhD KJM Consulting Denver, CO
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2/7/2020 3:34:03 PM

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