Why waste oil burning it when we can use it to make things?

The cost of <em>not</em> switching to renewables.

Grist's David Roberts highlights a really important piece of research by the World Future Council, examining the non-climate-change-related cost of not switching to renewables.

The reasoning is simple: fossil fuels can be burned to make energy, or used as a raw material (e.g. for production of plastics). Every barrel of oil we burn for energy is therefore a barrel which we can't use as a raw material. Thus:

Their burning — whenever they could have been replaced by renewables — is costly capital destruction.

The report concludes that the "future usage loss" resulting from current consumption is between $3.2trn and $3.4trn a year.

Roberts writes that "the exact numbers here are, like numbers in all economic modeling, probably going to turn out to be wrong," and he's definitely right. At first glance, the most important thing absent from the initial paper is no discussion of the difference between present and future value.

This isn't just the problem that resources worth $3.2trn at today's prices might not be worth that at tomorrow's; its also that rigorous economic analysis always discounts the future.

Consider it this way: if you had the option to be paid £100 now or £100 in a year, you would clearly choose the former. The money in the future is less valuable, even though it is nominally the same amount. That's partially because people want things now, of course; but it's also because if you took the £100 now and put it in a savings account, it would be worth more than £100 in 12 month's time. (And let's not even begin on the discussions of how new technology will change the value of fossil fuels as raw materials in ways we can't begin to predict. How will things change, for instance, if conductive plastics take off?)

The same thinking needs to be applied to the question of the "destruction" of potential resources. Their value today — and thus the degree to which they ought to encourage us to switch to renewables — is lower the further into the future we are going to use them.

But really, the discussion of the actual value is slightly moot. Unless we're doing a massive overview of the costs of climate change mitigation — a second Stern report — then we can't properly weigh those costs against all the others. What we can say is that this is an under-discussed benefit of switching to renewable technology sooner rather than later, and of promoting climate change prevention rather than mitigation.

Incidentally, the research also provides a counter-point to the claim that it's not safe to leave fossil fuels in the ground. That's the argument that:

If we build enough renewable energy capacity to supply our entire system, there are still fossil fuels ready to burn. The people who built the renewable capacity may not want to burn them – but what about the next government? Or the next generation?

One option is to prevent future irresponsibility by burning fossil fuels today but with carbon capture and storage, ensuring that the carbon goes back underground. But another option is to switch to renewables and then continue using the fossil fuels for material production, locking up carbon not in vaults underground but in plastics.

In that analysis, even landfills get an image rehabilitation. They become gigantic carbon sinks, encouraging further use of fossil fuels as raw materials, removing more and more potential atmospheric carbon from circulation. There's hope for everyone yet.

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.