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Their burning — whenever they could have been replaced by renewables — is costly capital destruction.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: Martin Whitfield
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Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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