How Big Are the Externalities of Fossil Fuels?
In reference to my post on the lifecycle analysis (LCA) of wind turbines, a reader writes:
The LCA of fossil fuel (or nuclear) powered electricity production presumably shows a good return in terms of direct power out vs. power consumed. Until, that is, you start to quantify the externalities – pollution, climate impact, resource depletion, security, legacy management, etc – which is no mean feat and open to dispute on every point. It would be very interesting to see a calculation that attempts this challenge.
You have nailed it. If you can successfully get someone else to pay the costs you name there (and I would include the cost of waging wars to maintain access to oil), fossil fuels remain cheap. As far as the calculation is concerned, I often cite this recent report from Harvard Medical School, a scholarly piece that pegs the externalities of burning coal at $500 billion annually.
That’s pretty hefty, when you think about it. And it doesn’t contemplate other key ingredients in the cost equation. How many extreme weather events will be caused by global climate change, and what will be their price in terms of property damage and human fatalities? What will be the cost of dealing with tens of millions of “climate refugees?” Droughts that cause food and water shortages? Loss of biodiversity? Ocean acidification?
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