Three Reasons for Investing Now in Fossil Fuel Conservation: Technological Lock-In, Institutional Inertia, and Oil Wars

By England, Richard W. | Journal of Economic Issues, September 1994 | Go to article overview

Three Reasons for Investing Now in Fossil Fuel Conservation: Technological Lock-In, Institutional Inertia, and Oil Wars


England, Richard W., Journal of Economic Issues


A growing number of scientific researchers and political leaders have urged prompt conservation of fossil fuels by investing immediately in energy-efficient vehicles, machinery, and structures and by gradually shifting to alternative sources of energy. Georgescu-Roegen [1983, 431-2], for example, has asserted:

That the fossil fuels bonanza will end sooner rather than

later is beyond doubt.... The only reasonable strategy is

conservation.... [C]onservation is a program for the entire

human species which can be undertaken if Homo sapiens

sapiens is also wise enough. Otherwise, we shall not need a

Prometheus to bring us a new fire but another demigod to

remake us from our own ashes.

The reason most commonly given in support of fossil fuel conservation is the need to prevent future global climate change. The World Resources Institute [1992, 2-7], for instance, argues that fossil fuels "provide about 95 percent of the commercial energy used in the world economy ... Combustion of those fuels constitutes the largest source of emissions of climate-altering greenhouse gases ... [M]ost scientists agree that such emissions cannot be continued indefinitely at current or increasing levels without causing ... devastating effects on ecosystems and on . . . people ...."

This argument, although widely endorsed within the scientific community and the environmental movement, is not universally accepted. The failure of the U.S. government to support carbon emission targets at the 1992 UNCED conference in Rio de Janeiro is perhaps the most glaring example. Even among scientists, however, there are those who oppose immediate regulation of carbon emissions to prevent global climate change in the future. After a brief survey of evidence, for example, Beckerman [1992, 486] concludes that "even under pessimistic assumptions the annual cost to the world as a whole of global warming associated with a doubling Of C[O.sub.2] concentrations is likely to be almost negligible in comparison with the value of world output.... [Cuts in] C[O.sub.2] emissions sufficient to slow significantly the rise in [atmospheric) C[O.sub.2] concentration and postpone doubling it for several decades would be far more expensive ... to society than would be the damage done by a doubling Of C[O.sub.2] emissions."

Thus, scientific disagreement and political controversy have begun to cast doubt on whether conservation of fossil hydrocarbons should be a top priority of the international community. Whereas Orr [1992, 3] contends that inaction on reducing carbon emissions is "recklessness masquerading as caution," Beckerman [1992, 489] retorts that nobody "invests unlimited amounts in order to avoid a future threat, [even a possibly irreversible and catastrophic one,] however small the risk."(1) Rees [1991] agrees that global controls on carbon discharges are essential to protect future generations but worries that the highly unequal distribution of wealth between North and South within the present generation might prevent international agreement to take action.(2) Nordhaus [1991] insists that the issue of climate change be framed as one of seeking Pareto dynamic efficiency, whereas Norgaard and Howarth [19911 propose that intergenerational equity be the normative principle guiding policy analysis and international negotiations.

I sympathize with those who argue that prudence and intergenerational equity require us to reduce carbon emissions and to conserve fossil fuels and believe that the case for prompt action should and can be strengthened both theoretically and politically. In this paper, I propose three reasons for conserving fossil fuels that have not yet received the same attention as the issue of global warming. These arguments, all of which draw attention to fossil fuel depletion instead of carbon emissions, emphasize:

* The threat of lock-in to an alternative energy technology that is ecologically hazardous or economically unviable. …

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