Fossil carbons — coal, oil, and natural gas — have become a mainstay of modern life. Their principal advantage is they are readily converted into energy (heat and electricity), transportation fuels (gasoline, diesel, etc.) and chemicals (principally fertilizers and petrochemicals). They occur in highly concentrated form but typically in remote and environmentally sensitive regions. With some exceptions like Alberta’s oil sands, they are located deep below the surface of the earth, requiring access by mining or drilling, which have significant environmental impacts, as does their transportation to processing facilities and final markets. However, the major environmental impact that is of growing concern is the generation of greenhouse gases during the extraction, processing and, most importantly, the combustion of fuels for transportation and energy generation purposes.
Until recently, it was widely believed that the world would run out of fossil carbons in the near future because they are a finite resource and their usage rates are high. This concern is receding because it is now well known that the global reserves of fossil carbons are very large and technology will likely evolve to produce even marginal deposits at reasonable costs. At current usage rates, the proven global reserves of coal, oil and natural gas are expected to last more than 50 years. Canada is richly endowed with fossil carbons and their availability will extend well beyond this time horizon even if Canada becomes a major global and not just North American supplier.
Environmental concerns coupled with the quest for greater energy efficiency could result in electricity becoming the dominant energy source for light cars and trucks. They could also lead to renewables (wind, solar and hydro) replacing fossil carbons (not only coal but also natural gas) for electricity generation and stimulate more energy-efficient buildings. All of these factors would reduce the demand for fossil carbons. The price reductions may be offset by a growing population and increasing prosperity — factors that have traditionally increased the demand for fossil carbons. However, there is no certainty. Renewables, nuclear fission and potentially even nuclear fusion may meet the growing demand at the expense of fossil carbons. The result would be a decline in the demand for fossil carbons and hence their price.
Canada’s Western provinces and Newfoundland and Labrador are rich in fossil carbons and derive major economic benefits from their production. The entire nation is benefitting from heightened economic activity and tax revenues. A decline in the demand and price of fossil carbons would therefore have wide economic impacts. While it has been argued that these impacts will be offset by the growth of new industries and employment opportunities, is the only option for Canada to abandon the use of fossil carbons?
I think not and believe that, instead, we should look intensively for major new products based on fossil carbons that do not result in significant emissions of greenhouse gases and are functionally superior to and cost competitive with traditional products. Possible examples are carbon fibres as replacement for steel in structural applications (including reinforced concrete), carbon-fibre reinforced laminated wood products and polycarbonates as replacements for glass. In all cases, products derived from fossil carbons have superior strength to weight ratios but suffer, at present, from cost disadvantages. Their production is also energy intensive. These disadvantages can be overcome through the development of new process technologies and utilizing new greenhouse gas-free sources of energy.
A major effort, undertaken by representatives of fossil carbon industries, academia and government should therefore be undertaken to identify new products with major potential for fossil carbons. Product and process research needs to be undertaken with a view to full commercialization in Canada and abroad. The effort would be a fitting initiative for the Chemical Institute of Canada and the Canadian Society for Chemical Engineering, in conjunction with the private and public sector partners.
If this effort is successful, the future of fossil carbons will continue to contribute to the prosperity of Canadians and people throughout the world.
Axel Meisen is a former professor of chemical engineering and dean of the Faculty of Applied Science at the University of British Columbia, president of Memorial University of Newfoundland, inaugural chair in Foresight at Alberta Innovates: Technology Futures and president of the Canadian Commission for UNESCO.