Sustainable Fossil Fuels: The Unusual Suspect in the Quest for Clean and Enduring Energy, Mark Jaccard, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005. Reviewed by Jack Santa-Barbara

Mark Jaccard’s book is important. He argues that government policy should focus on controlling emissions of greenhouse gases rather than reducing use of the fossil fuels that cause these emissions. In his view, this would allow for the continued use of fossil fuels (largely coal) in a “clean or zero-emission” energy system. His proposal, however, is fatally flawed.

While advocating the continued use of fossil fuels over renewables due, in part, to the difficulty in bringing on sufficient renewable energy fast enough to meet global demand, he fails to adequately address the difficulty in scaling up the infrastructure needed to accomplish “zeroemission” fossil fuels. Furthermore, his sustainability criteria for “cleanliness” and “endurance” are misguided. His “endurance” criterion, for example, focuses on endurance of the energy system not, as many would prefer, on ecosystems.

Despite these shortcomings, he poses a critical and rare question: how much energy is too much for ecosystems to bear? Sadly, he fails to adequately address it.

Jaccard, an environmental economist and professor at Simon Fraser University, accepts that global energy demand will grow some 300 per cent between 2000 and 2100. Unfortunately, he does not connect this demand in growth to the question of how much energy is too much. The 2005 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment Report concluded that human economic activities (read “energy use”) are already disrupting many global ecosystems, some perhaps irreparably.

Jaccard’s methodical approach may have produced a more ecologically sustainable proposal if his “endurance” criteria focused on ecosystems rather than energy systems. Jaccard proposes that global energy demand can be met by a mix of zero emission “clean coal” (along with storage or sequestration of CO2 emissions), renewables and nuclear, plus some efficiency increases. He projects that this mix will result in atmospheric concentrations of CO2 in the 500 ppm range, a level considered “high risk” by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

He argues that clean coal has advantages over renewables because of coal’s abundance and relatively advanced technologies and infrastructure. As renewable technologies improve, they will take over an increasing share of the energy market, and coal and other fossil fuels will be phased out. His plan involves what he calls “zero emission” fossil fuels as the dominant primary energy source into the next century.

By zero emission fossil fuels, Jaccard refers to their conversion into clean secondary energy (e.g. electricity or hydrogen) with the near elimination of CO2 emissions. He believes this can be accomplished through CO2 capture, followed by storage in oceans or in underground reservoirs. (Ongoing research is looking into the safety and environmental considerations of carbon storage as there are risks associated with this procedure.)

Jaccard’s analysis is flawed because the technologies for clean coal and carbon storage, like renewables, are not well advanced. Jaccard outlines many of the uncertainties, but then discounts the hurdles involved in scaling the technologies up. Yet, it’s uncertainties about renewables, in part, that are the basis for his rejecting them in favour of fossil fuels. Projecting technological advances (and their economic and environmental costs) are notoriously erroneous. Given the seriousness of the ecological damage caused by human energy technologies to date, prudence suggests a more ecologically cautious approach.

Furthermore, Jaccard’s cleanliness criterion is largely restricted to removal of various noxious substances and CO2. He may be too dismissive of the environmental impacts of a small per cent of a significantly larger volume of toxic emissions (e.g. mercury), of coal or oil sands extraction in wilderness areas and of competing uses for the large amounts of water required for both coal and oil sands.

Zero emission technologies may neither be scalable nor provide the security of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Vaclav Smil at the University of Manitoba, for example, points out that the challenge of scaling up CO2 storage is enormous and certainly not attainable in the short term.

In addition, Jaccard’s plan would actually require more energy production as the net energy of the systems proposed is considerably less than other options, including some renewable alternatives. This plan prolongs and encourages the use of fossil fuels without rigorously determined safety precautions, and without addressing the key question of how much energy ecosystems can bear.

Ultimately, it’s Jaccard’s avoidance of the real sustainability question: how much energy can ecosystems bear, and the related question: how much energy does human well-being require, that cause problems. He recognizes this limitation, stating, “Ironically, however, clean energy – whether relying on fossil fuels or some other option – does not ensure a sustainable human presence on earth.”

Such a truly sustainable energy system would likely require social change as much as technological innovation. Jaccard’s scenario opts to focus on technical rather than social solutions, because of the perceived difficulty with the latter.However, this approach simply delays the inevitable: humankind must reduce its energy use.

Despite its flaws, Jaccard’s award winning book provides a useful assessment of energy policy options. While one might disagree with both the specific criteria and his application, his methodical struggle with a feasible policy direction is an exercise not often addressed. His plan presents many challenges to environmentalists, not the least of which is to develop a compelling counter proposal that is genuinely ecologically sustainable.

Jack Santa-Barbara is the director of The Sustainable Scale Project, an NGO dedicated to making the economy ecologically sustainable.