Essential Services – Resilience

When you live in an oil state like Canada or the United States, and someone publicly floats the idea that we should start limiting the use of fossil fuels by shutting down a specific pipeline or levying a small tax on carbon, you might expect someone to respond with the statement “Well, we can’t ditch fossil fuels overnight.”

This statement is delivered with an air of authority ending argument, as if the insight was worthy of simultaneous Nobel Prizes in physics, economics, accounting and rocket science.

Now, I’ve never heard anyone seriously suggest that we box quit fossil fuels overnight. It also occurred to me that “we can’t stop fossil fuels overnight” can be a substitute for “we really don’t want to, and have no intention of, even slightly slowing down the ‘use of fossil fuels, not just anytime’. soon!”

But let’s put the cynicism aside and let “we can’t give up fossil fuels overnight” serve not as the end of a discussion, but as the beginning.

Why can not we are quitting fossil fuels tomorrow, and what implications does this have on our way of life given that we are already in a climate emergency?

For the foreseeable future, we will need aviation fuel for water bombers fighting forest fires, which we can expect to occur with increasing frequency and intensity. We will need fuel for helicopters rescuing people from severe flooding, which is also increasing in frequency. As droughts become more frequent and widespread, leading to crop failures, we will need fossil fuels to ship emergency food over long distances.

In the short term, we will need diesel fuel for the tractors that power the industrial food system1and more diesel fuel to transport food to all the distant megalopolises.2

For at least a decade or a few years, we will need fossil fuels to run mines and mills capable of producing equipment for concentrating, transmitting, storing and using renewable energy.3

On the other hand, purely from a climate-stabilizing point of view, we should quit fossil fuels tomorrow. Our consumption of fossil fuels has already resulted in dangerous levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, and each further increase in these gases will worsen our current climate crisis.

That’s quite the situation. If we do stopping fossil fuels overnight, large numbers of people will starve, the global economy will collapse, and civilization will most likely collapse. If we don’t shut down fossil fuels overnight, or at least very soon, weather disasters will rapidly increase in frequency and intensity, and yes, large numbers of people will starve, the world economy will collapse and civilization will crumble. will most likely collapse.

The best outcome seems clear to me (but not to most policymakers): we need to decide which fossil fuel-powered services are essential to keep us alive and get us through our predicament, and we need to drastically reduce all others fossil fuel-powered services, starting immediately .

As we quickly learned to do during the covid pandemic, a distinction must be made between essential and discretionary activities. We must then recognize that where discretionary activities cause greenhouse gas emissions, we can no longer afford it. But we have to come to that recognition and that course of action not for a year or two of a pandemic, but for a generation or two, maybe a lifetime or two, maybe a century or two, until the climate crisis in the background. view mirror.

It sounds drastic. It sounds like what we could do if, when we say we’re in a climate crisis, we actually mean it – if we mean our situation demands a crisis response, instead of continuing to wishful thinking, the crisis will disappear without any drastic measures.

Clearly, the biggest changes should come from those of us in the “developed” world, those of us whose lifestyles contribute by far the greatest share of greenhouse gas emissions. For a large part of the world’s population, a drastic reduction in optional fossil fuel services would lead to little change in behavior, since they consume little fossil energy for essential or optional services.

What might a distinction between essential and discretionary use of fossil fuels mean in practice? With regard to aviation, for example, we could recognize the use of water bombers to fight forest fires, helicopters to carry out rescues and airlifts to deliver food and medical supplies. essential in the aftermath of hurricanes. Fossil fuel vacations – flights to beach vacations, golf outings or “ecotourism” adventures that start and end on a runway – are clearly discretionary and would be banned or severely restricted, if we took the crisis climate seriously.

The use of fossil fuel industry for the manufacture of renewable energy equipment or basic medical technology would be considered essential. The fossil fuel manufacturing of leaf blowers, RVs, patio heaters and most of the products that litter our big box stores before littering our garages and then our landfills, would be recognized as discretionary and would cease.

The production of plastic packaging and containers for certain specialized needs could be essential while we develop and accelerate the production of replacements. Production of single-use disposables, most plastic packaging and plastic toys would be considered discretionary and would cease.

The production and use of fossil-fuelled trucks to transport heavy but essential goods over long distances would be considered essential, until renewable energy-powered trucks could be built in sufficient numbers and until our logistics systems can be properly sized. The production and heavy use of passenger vehicles, especially huge, heavy and monstrously overpowered passenger vehicles like SUVs and “light trucks”, would be deemed discretionary and drastically reduced, in number and size, from now.

These few examples only scratch the surface, of course, and the distinction between “essential” and “discretionary” will be more difficult in some cases than in others. Obtaining political momentum for the necessary changes can be particularly difficult. Individual, voluntary actions – important for setting benchmarks and building credibility – will accomplish little on their own if they are not accompanied by societal-wide transformation.4

Much of the change can and must occur in our transportation practices and systems, and this will be the subject of several upcoming episodes in this series.

In North America, and wherever energy-intensive lifestyles are dominant, there is such wasteful use of fossil fuels that we can make a big difference in emissions in no time – if we do. choose. Although we may quibble for decades over the tough final steps to achieving a zero-carbon economy, in the immediate future there is a tremendous amount of fruit at hand.

What matters now is not what we promise for 2050, it’s what we actually do in 2023, 2024 and 2025 to get us on track.


1Jason Bradford provides excellent insight into why it will be particularly difficult to turn our industrial agricultural system into renewable energy. His work examines the inherent limitations of using large battery-powered tractors and the need for a significantly larger share of the population to live and work in agricultural areas in the future. It is clear that these changes cannot and will not happen overnight. See Bradford’s report The Future is Rural: Food System Adaptations to the Great Simplification (2019), and its chapter “The Future is Rural: Societal Adaptation to Energy Descent”, in Energy transition and economic autonomy (2021).

2Alice Friedemann’s book 2016 When the Trucks Stop: Energy and the Future of Transportation is a great insight into the challenges of driving heavy duty battery powered freight trucks or trains.

3Even if and when we have developed enormous capacity for renewable electricity generation, many industrial processes, especially those that require high temperatures and heat fluxes, will be difficult or impossible to convert from fossil fuel combustion to electricity. ‘electricity. This includes the production of concrete, steel and a wide range of chemicals used in industrial products. For an overview with further references, see my chapter “Energy Sprawl in the Renewable-Energy Sector”, in Energy transition and economic autonomy (2021).

4Finding the right mix of government policies that can quickly end discretionary fossil fuel consumption is beyond the scope of this series. These policies must not only be effective and feasible, but also equitable. For one such mechanism, see Stan Cox’s excellent work on equitable energy rations in Beyond the Green New Deal: Ending the Climate Emergency While We Still Can (2020).

Teaser photo credit: By Brocken Inaglory, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Michelle J. Kelley