How Banning Carbon Fuels and Synthetic Products Will Hurt the Environment (ESG: Myths and Realities)
Numerous politicians have committed their constituents to “Net-Zero” (or carbon neutral) objectives. This is to be achieved by the “electrification of everything,”—through decentralized onshore and offshore wind and solar photovoltaic (PV) power generation; substantial conversions in the transportation (e.g., cars, light trucks) and building (e.g., electric cooking, space and water heating) sectors; reduced overall consumption (e.g., consumer goods, meat); and incremental improvements of all kinds (e.g., heat pumps, building insulation) to improve efficiency in energy use. This transition is to be facilitated by various government interventions, including new or higher carbon taxes and renewable mandates; a capping of greenhouse gas emissions and new carbon trading schemes; a ban on new GHG-emitting vehicles; and significant support for the development of hitherto nonexistent transformative technologies (e.g., giant batteries, hydrogen-fueled planes and cars, large scale removal of atmospheric CO2).
In parallel to these developments, many environmental activists and politicians have demonized synthetic products derived from fossil fuels, culminating in a 2019 pledge by representatives of 170 nations to “significantly reduce” the use of plastics by 2030. The Canadian government has since then set itself the task of guiding businesses and organizations to transition away from “problematic plastics” in order to reduce pollution and support the creation of a circular economy. This policy is justified in the name of “current scientific evidence” that “indicates that macroplastic pollution causes physical harm to wildlife on an individual level and has the potential to adversely affect habitat integrity”. In practice though, Canadians, like residents of other advanced economies, release very little such substances into ecosystems.
Both net-zero and plastic ban policies have not gone unchallenged. Apart from what are deemed unrealistic timelines, excessive costs, and lack of scalability or adequate substitutes, critics have pointed out that so-called “green energy” will have a greater direct impact on land-based ecosystems.
Needless to say, none of the so-called alternatives could even be built and maintained without massive amounts of carbon fuels (e.g., machinery, steel and cement production, composite materials, transport, installation, maintenance, potential recycling, and back-up power generation). Much research has also established that banning plastic straws, bags, packaging, and other single use plastic products, to say nothing of more comprehensive future bans of synthetic materials, can only result in increased demand for biomass-based and other materials (e.g., lumber, cotton, wool, glass, metals, clay) with greater overall environmental impacts.
This essay briefly discusses one aspect of these controversies, i.e., the incidental environmental benefits of carbon fuels and synthetic products. As it will suggest, not only were they developed for good, practical reasons, but they also drastically reduced pressures on wild flora and fauna and contributed significantly to the gradual abandonment and eventual reforestation and potential rewilding of much marginal agricultural land. Banning them, especially when the world’s population is now much larger than when they first displaced other inputs and technologies, will only recreate and exacerbate the problems they once solved.
The development of valuable resources from substances extracted from below our planet’s surface paved the way for the creation of a wide range of superior substitutes for products once manufactured from plants and animals such as biomass-based fuels, lubricants, fertilizers, building materials, fibers, leather, and other products. Although they are now often demonized, carbon fuels such as coal, refined petroleum products and natural gas, along with synthetic products such as plastics and composite materials, made it possible to meet the needs of growing and increasingly wealthier populations while gradually diminishing the human footprint on the landscape. The result has been a world increasingly more hospitable to humans and wildlife. Reverting back to biomass-based products on large scale can only undermine advances made in terms of expanded habitat for wildlife and greater biodiversity.