The burning issue

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photo Ilz West

photo Ilz West

Fire is at the root of our climate problems and it is time we put it out, writes Walt Patterson, Associate Fellow at Chatham House. “We need to switch from using fire to using electricity.

Is climate complicated? Yes – except in one key respect. Countless reams of disputed text preceded the Paris Agreement of December 2015. Media coverage before, during and after the summit was hectic with controversy. Yet all the furious disputation that surrounds the climate issue can be traced back to a single common fourletter word. The word is fire.

Why fire? In the headlong climate debate worldwide, no one talks about fire. They talk about fossil fuels, about emissions, about carbon dioxide, about increasing global temperature, about floods and droughts, about sea-level rise, about melting glaciers and collapsing ice sheets. These, however, are symptoms of what is wrong. They are not the cause. Somehow the commentators fail to notice or remark that all of these factors arise because of fire.

The confrontation is neither technological, nor economic. It is fundamentally political – a political battle we can’t afford to lose

ExxonMobil, BP, Shell and Saudi Aramco do not produce petroleum to make lubricants and plastics, although they could. They produce petroleum mainly for us to burn. No one even thinks of the useful molecular structure of coal. Peabody, BHP and Glencore gouge the landscape and blow the tops off mountains to produce coal for us to burn. The frackers extracting natural gas expect to sell it for us to burn. Vast worldwide enterprise is devoted to feeding fire.

Fire predates us; our Neanderthal precursors used fire. We Homo sapiens evolved with fire. It has been a critical factor in developing human society, allowing us to make light, to cook, to bake ceramics and smelt metals. Even now, we still think of fire as cosy and welcoming. But fire is a violent, extreme process. It produces heat at a temperatures so high it’s dangerous. Fire turns resources rapidly into waste, usually pernicious. Yet because we have always used fire, we have never accurately costed its deleterious consequences. We take them for granted, as though we had no alternative.

We do have an alternative. With the help of fire we have learnt to control electricity. With electricity we can now do most of what we used to do with fire. We make light not by burning oil but with electric lamps. We exert force not with the fire of steam engines but with electric motors. We are even beginning to move people and goods not with fire – internal combustion – but with electric vehicles. Perhaps most important of all, we now manage information with electricity in electronics, expanding at a rate we can hardly comprehend.

We still allow planners to call firebased, coal-burning electricity ‘cheaper’, even as it suffocates cities and upsets the climate we have to live with

Fire is a chemical process. It destroys the material it happens in. Electricity is a physical process. It does not alter the material it happens in, nor does it produce pernicious waste. Electricity could save us the damage fire is doing – except for one awkward detail. We still make most of our electricity with fire.

We don’t have to. We have known for two centuries how to produce electricity without fire, from chemical batteries, then from moving wires, and more recently from sunlight. Today we have a rapidly expanding shopping list of fire-free electricity from water power, wind power and solar power, in many versions, with costs decreasing and performance increasing. But we still allow planners to call firebased, coal-burning electricity ‘cheaper’, even as it suffocates cities and upsets the climate we have to live with.

That is another corollary of fire. Its unwelcome consequences are not just gradual, long-term and global, as is the case for climate. Fire under indoor cooking pots and in kerosene lamps in rural villages in Africa and Asia kills millions of women and children each year. Fire is also the reason you can’t breathe today in Beijing or Delhi. Some sceptics say we should focus on these immediate local issues, rather than climate. But both local and global issues arise from the same ultimate cause. Locally as well as globally we have let fire get out of control.

Governments have always been more financially generous to fossil fuels, than to fire-free renewable electricity. That has to change

What can we do about this? Much of the commentary around the climate issue talks of the emerging transition to a different way of doing what we do – a ‘low-carbon economy’, a ‘fossil-free future’ and so on. However, once we acknowledge the central role of fire, we can describe what we need to do coherently.

First, we need to stop wasting fuel and electricity – that is, stop using fire unnecessarily. That means above all getting serious about improving our inadequate buildings, so they no longer need so much fire-based heating and cooling.

Second, we need to switch from using fire to using electricity, especially in industry and transport.

Third, we need to switch from fire-based to fire-free electricity.

All of these transitions are already under way. Together they constitute a coherent programme of policies and measures that we need to adopt, accelerate and disseminate as rapidly and as widely as possible. We have to challenge spurious comparisons of cost and ‘subsidies’ that ignore the damage wrought by fire. Governments have always been more financially generous to fossil fuels, than to fire-free renewable electricity. That has to change.

In essence, all the different policies and measures supporting the Paris Agreement  are a form of fire-fighting

Fire insurance was one of the oldest forms of risk management. Global fire insurance, investment to cope with the global threat of fire, is now crucial. As the cost of fire-free electricity continues to fall, the opportunities for technological and financial innovation are burgeoning, with new business models, transactions and arrangements. An appealing vision of an electric future, ever more free of fire, is steadily taking shape. But innovators face fierce opposition from those who derive financial and political clout from feeding fire. The confrontation is neither technological, nor economic. It is fundamentally political – a political battle we can’t afford to lose.

In essence, all the different policies and measures supporting the Paris Agreement – the Nationally Determined Contributions, the financial framework, the undertakings and commitments – are a form of fire-fighting. So are national and civic laws and regulations about air quality. To keep our air safe enough to breathe, to keep our only planet cool enough to live on, we have to put out the fire.walt patterson book cover

Editor’s Note

Walt Patterson is an Associate Fellow in the Energy, Environment and Resources Programme at Chatham House. His latest book is Electricity vs Fire: The Fight For Our Future, which you can download from his website Walt Patterson on Energy here. It is also available from Amazon for just $7.50 or £5.00. 

This article was first published in the February-March 2016 issue of the Chatham House monthly The World Today and is republished here with permission.


  1. says

    The essay is the sort of utopian silliness that helped stoke the political backlash that is sweeping across Europe, and now the US. It builds on the “we” fallacy. In reality there is no “we” — humanity is divided into many contending social, cultural, religious, and political factions that altogether agree about very little if anything. Because of that reality, the already tepid COP21 agreement is effectively dead now.

    Cost-effective technology — which for the most part does not yet exist — could render much of the political conflict over climate moot. If there were alternatives whose real market costs were less than fossil fuels, market forces would suffice to replace the latter with the former. The solution to stalemated climate politics is technological innovation that can make clean energy cheap enough for the poor to afford. See:

    • Mark Sherman says

      One only need to note the effort of the left-leaning globalists who are like Obama, supporting the passage of laws that would make dissent on climate change a RICO offense. Galileo had the same problem with people who would not allow room for critical thinking in science.
      Just today, it is reported that a prominent climate scientist, Judith Curry resigned from GA Tech. Wh
      Georgia Tech Climatologist Curry Resigns over ‘the CRAZINESS in the field of climate science.’
      She is a prominent critic of the “consensus” that man-made climate change is an impending catastrophe. -So much for lefty critical thought.
      Ronald Bailey|Jan. 4, 2017 12:05 pm

  2. Karel Beckman says

    Mr Perelman, why not address what is actually in the essay? To accuse the writer of silliness only shows your failure to understand and displays an arrogance that is simply annoying. Your assertions are not very convincing anyway. Why would COP21 be dead? As to cost-effective technologies being needed, do you really think this is a new insight? And did you totally miss the cost reduction revolution going on in renewable energy?

    • says

      Karel, I did address what’s in the essay. ‘Silliness’ was the most gentle description I could come up with. And Patterson’s recycling Amory Lovins’ war on ‘fire’ is hardly original.

      The cost reduction in renewable energy? That is often exaggerated by not counting costs of storage, transmission, and other infrastructure. And cast-strapped governments have found it increasingly difficult to afford the subsidies needed to prop them up.

      Have you not noticed the sharp price reduction in oil, gas, and coal? And the foolish shut-downs and obstructions of low-carbon nuclear power that has resulted in increased use of fossil fuels? The author had nothing to say about those realities.

      James Hansen called the COP21 would-be agreement a ‘fraud.’ With no effective enforcement mechanism for otherwise voluntary actions, virtually no one thought it had any serious potential to achieve the espoused ‘2 degree C’ goal.

      “The Paris Agreement and any U.S. leadership in international climate progress is dead,” said Dana Fisher, director of the Program for Society and the Environment at the University of Maryland.

      “In Australia, the right-of-centre ruling Liberal Party decided to ratify the Paris Agreement. But some of its MPs suggested the treaty was now dead, just days after it came into force.”

      “The Paris “Climate Change” agreement is well and truly dead, says Roger Helmer [UKIP MEP].”

      “The accord reached in Paris fails in three key ways: It cannot satisfy an elementary cost-benefit analysis; it does not serve the national interests of the United States; and the Obama administration is seeking to bind the United States to a treaty while insisting that it is not a treaty and thereby shutting Congress out of its proper role in ratifying such accords. For these reasons, the Paris agreement should be considered dead on arrival, and Congress should make it clear that the United States will not consider itself legally bound by it for the simple reason that it has not been legally adopted.” (National Review)

      “The election of Donald Trump as President of the United States is a “real and imminent threat” to the fight against climate change, and “completely upends every single element” of the Paris Agreement, making it almost impossible to deliver, the MEP [Ian Duncan] leading EU carbon market reform has warned.”

      Finally, this was one of several scenarios of what will happen when the Trump Administration terminates US participation in the Paris agreement (which, not endorsed by the Senate, has no force of law in the US): “If the Trump administration decides to withdraw from the Paris Agreement then other major economies which are parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) will have justification to do the same. This is de facto what happened with the 1997 Kyoto Protocol once it became clear that the U.S. would not ratify and was not serious about its implementation. Not least because the Paris Agreement came together as a result of much diplomatic leadership by the Obama administration, other countries would feel a legitimate sense of anger and disappointment towards the United States if it were to walk away from the agreement.”

      Other scenarios suggest a more nuanced response. But in any event the already deficient impact of the agreement will be severely vitiated by lack of US participation.

      On top of that, anger sparked by the Obama administration’s not vetoing an anti-Israel UN Security Council resolution has prompted the Republican majority (and some Democrats) in the US Congress to cut off US funding of the UN. If the UN loses 20% of its budget, UNFCCC activities are likely to take a big hit.

      Trump was elected. The UK voters chose Brexit. Marine Le Pen and the National Front are on the rise in France. Look at Poland, Hungary, Austria, the Philippines.

      You may not like the way the political winds are blowing, I may not either. But political reality is what it is. Poll after poll shows that climate change is among the least important political issues to the public in most places in the world. Patterson’s invocation of “we” in this context can only be viewed at least as naive if not downright folly.

  3. Karel Beckman says

    Lewis, Walt Patterson has been around at least as long as Amory Lovins and has no need to copy anybody. You should check up before you make such accusations. Insulting people is not the way to convince them. It is disrespectful. If you want to be shown respect, show respect. You are clearly very poorly informed about cost reductions in renewable energy, but it seems you have already made up your mind about this. Whether or not fossil fuels are cheap is not the point. If climate change is the threat that scientists say it is, they must be made more expensive. Not likely to happen? Perhaps not, but that doesn’t mean someone can’t make a plea for it. Besides, political winds can blow the other way as well. After people have seen the kind of world that Mr Trump and his ilk create, there may well be a backlash, particularly if we will also see a couple of scary extreme weather events. In any case, the importance of the US is on the wane. You are completely isolated on issues like Israel, which you could get away with it as long as you were the sole superpower, but those days are over. Of course if the threat of climate change turns out to be grossly exaggerated, it’s a different story. But if that is your assumption, then come out and say so.

    • says

      Karel, despite your graduate degree in English, perhaps you don’t grasp that “hardly original” conveys no implication of plagiarism. Some dictionary definitions may help:

      – fresh and unusual
      – Productive of new things or new ideas; inventive
      – novel

      What you won’t find is any equation to or implication of plagiarism.

      Amory Lovins published his book “Reinventing Fire” in 2011. Patterson self-published his book referred to above in 2015. Hence: hardly original, it recycles a concept that was broached and bandied about before. There is a legitimate value in recycling ideas that are worthwhile. For reasons I’ve indicated, I don’t think this one is.

      Aside from that clarification, I will confess to being embarrassed that I am evidently the only person out of 7 billion on this planet who thought this was worth commenting on. It’s a mistake I will endeavor not to repeat.

      Having ignored or misrepresented everything else I said here, you may continue doing battle with straw men on your own time.

      • Karel Beckman says

        Lewis, I did not use the word plagiarism. I said copy. You accused Patterson of not being original. I never said you accused him of plagiarism. You are attributing thoughts to me I did not express. Maybe next time don’t start off by telling other people they are silly.

  4. says


    As recent reader/commentor I am quite surprised by the choice of articles on this forum. It looks to me that it is mainly focused on people who from their ivory tower look with very rosi glasses how good the future for (not so) green alternatives for fossil fuel power is… Without very few analyses of current and future costs, not to mention the (lack of) probable benefits…

    Here again by the author:

    Governments have always been more financially generous to fossil fuels, than to fire-free renewable electricity. That has to change

    On what world is that person living? For every liter of fuel at the pump 30% is production cost, 70% are taxes. Electricity from renewables (except hydro) still thrives on subsidies (one third if the kWh price here) ánd the back-up of fossil fuel generation, as that still is the only way to keep the grid stable. Without them we would have daily power outages of a third world country. Without running fossil – or hydro – power, you can’t even start a network with solar and wind alone, see South Australia recently…

    It is quite simple: if the real cost of renewables one day is really less expensive than of fossil fuels, that day the world wide transition would be extremely fast. Remember the conversion of coal gas to natural gas in The Netherlands and Belgium: less than 10 years for a gigantic change in all gas using equipment in every household and factory and expanding/renewing lots of lines…

    • Karel Beckman says

      Ferdinand, IEA and World Bank have been reporting for years that fossil fuel subsidies are much higher than renewables subsidies, at least on a global scale. In Europe, gasoline is heavily taxed, that is true. What about subsidies for coal mining and coal power over the last fifty years? Huge sums. What about external costs that are subsidized in various way, e.g. health costs? On South Australia you seem poorly informed, official inquiries have shown power outage there was not caused by wind power. But I welcome well-written articles that present different arguments. Feel free to contribute!

      • says


        What I have read of “subsidies” for petrol products is that in several countries like Saudi Arabia and Venezuela these are sold under the world market price to help their own people. That is not what I call direct subsidies to petrol companies…
        About coal, I don’t know anything, so no comment. I only that Australia is building a brand new harbour and an enormous open pit mine to supply China – at the cost of their own deep mines in Northern China. I don’t think the Australians would do that without a sight on future profits…

        About the SA blackout(s): I have read the detailed order of events which is here:

        There was a chain of events, each reducing the remaining grid capacity to cope with the next problem. While most of these problems could have been prevented by better hard/software between the different actors, the final step to the final blackout was the sudden loss of 366 MW of wind power, which wasn’t met by sufficient “spinning reserve” and the only remaining intact supply from Victoria was overloaded and tripped.

        That is one of the problems if you have a large amount of intermittent power. For conventional power, you need about 10% of maximum load reserve for in case the largest supplier (usually ~1000 MW) trips and/or as reserve for scheduled maintenance plus ~10% external supply for in case of larger problems.

        In the case of wind power, you need 100% “spinning reserve” as wind power can go down very rapidly – a matter of 10-15 minutes for a whole country…

        • Hans says

          So winpower was to blame just because it was the last step? Strange argumentation.

          Furthermore, also this last step could have been prevented had the ride-through settings of the wind turbines been differently. It is up to the grid operator to set regulations for such settings. So in the end the grid-operator failed.

          • says

            Hans, as I said, it was a chain of events and indeed with better hard/software the final shutdown could have been prevented in this case, if the windpower would have remained to supply a substantial minimum of power after several drops of voltage due to short circuits and if the last connection with Victoria would have supplied its maximum current, which would have reduced the frequency sufficiently to invoke a shutdown of parts of the network to rebalance the system.

            That being said, the sudden shutdown of 9 of the 13 wind farms was unexpected, as they never provided the ride-through settings to the national grid operator, or even that such shut down software was present. From the summary of the report:

            Investigations to date indicate that
            information on the control system involved and its settings was not included in the models of wind
            turbine operation provided to AEMO during NEM registration processes prior to connection of the
            wind farms.

            For the rest, in all cases one need sufficient spinning reserve to backup such events. For “conventional” power (including hydro) some 10% is mostly sufficient to cover the sudden loss of a large unit, for wind that is 100% of momentary wind power in case of a sudden loss up to 15 minutes, as most high yield baseload power stations can’t ramp up faster than 1-2% of full power per minute.

  5. David Drury says

    The comments on this article seem to have gone off into a generalised debate about fossil fuels versus renewables. Could I perhaps try to bring it back to what seems to be the point that the article is making, namely that building an energy system based on combustion is inevitably more destructive to the environment than a system based on electricity from non-thermal sources, because of the nature of fire.

    This is not the same thing as saying that renewable energy sources are preferable to fossil fuels. So my question would be whether this is a useful way of looking at things.

    I have to say that I’m not convinced that it is. It’s true that fire is a potentially dangerous thing, but after all this time we have learned how to cope with that – it’s the emissions that are the problem. Taking a stand against fire as such means throwing out sustainable wood and other biomass, biofuels, biomethane and hydrogen as a fuel. Is there any point in that?

    • says

      David, I agree: fire itself can be destructive, but if managed properly it has far more benefits than drawbacks, economically, socially and environmentally…
      That is the case for every activity by humans. That is the case for fossil fuels as good as for the alternatives: biofuels like alcohol and palm oil have done more harm by destruction of the tropical forests than they ever have or will prevent disasters caused by more CO2 in the atmosphere…
      The largest death toll ever from fire-free power was the collapse of the Banqiao Reservoir Dam in China: 171,000 killed, 11 million displaced. The death toll amongst (rare) birds and bats by wind mills is an ongoing shame on this “fire free” power supply…

      In addition, where should we classify nuclear fission power (and future fusion power)? Under “fire” or (mostly) “non-fire”?

    • says

      Quite right. The metaphor is tortured.

      First, fire made civilization possible. Concentrated energy in fossil fuels and later fissile material made industrial and post-industrial society possible.

      Note that there was a society where all energy was renewable and all jobs were green — it was called the Dark Ages.

      Also, just because resources are hypothetically ‘renewable’ does not mean that they are actually renewed. Pre-industrial civilizations often grew by exploiting resources faster than they could be replaced, and by expanding their territory (via conquest) to expand their resource base.

      Second, focusing on contemporary energy supply, nuclear power is the most proven, productive, and reliable source of electricity that has a very small carbon footprint. Is it ‘fire’? Amory Lovins, who started the war on ‘fire’ has long viewed it as anathema. But the practical effect of turning away from nuclear power has been to increase reliance on fossil fuels for reliable, dispatchable power.

      Finally, it is worth remembering that all life is ‘fire.’ The metabolism of living things is an attenuated form of combustion — carbohydrates or other substances are oxidized to produce energy, yielding water and byproduct gases such as CO2, methane, or H2S. Without fuel (food) and oxidizers, life perishes. Photosynthetic plants use the sun’s ‘fire’ to reduce CO2, water, and other substances into biomass. But in the absence of light, they too ‘burn’ stored carbohydrates to maintain their metabolism.

  6. says

    Portugal, Spain, Chile locations where PV and wind projects in the large MW-class are being built now with zero subsidy (Engie – Chile 54MW project – e.g.). The evolution of Euro off-shore wind (having hits around Euro45/MWh – over project lifetime) points to another RES tech arriving real soon at the no-subsidy point. This suggests that the days of fire – apart from using candles for a bit of “atmosphere” over dinner is coming to an end. Those that gloss over these,….er facts are engaging in wishful thinking.

    • David Drury says

      Well yes, maybe. But not coming to an end any time soon, I think. The IEA’s latest World Energy Outlook shows in their central case fossil fuels declining from the current 80% of total primary energy demand to about 73% by 2040. Not really a big step-change. And even in the most environmentally optimistic scenario where atmospheric CO2 levels are successfully held at 450 ppm, fossil fuels are still 58% of the global energy mix in 2040. The IEA is hardly infallible, but I think they are about the best self-consistent global long-term energy projections we have..

    • says

      Mike Parr,

      As far as I did find, Spain has replaced its feed-in tariffs (FiT) with a “guaranteed” 7.5% return on investment by paying a tariff per MW installed. Which in fact is a subsidy… Paying for delivery as good as for non-delivery… The new installations in Galicia are based on that guarantee…

      Portugal still has its FiT system, thus paying the FiT even when there is an oversupply of power on the market and prices are near or even below zero…

      Chile passed a law that 10% of all power from providers must be from non-hydro (except small ones) renewables, whatever the costs for the consumers may be…

      Further wind (and solar) power has absolute priority on the network, so reducing the profit of other systems, while they need an extremely fast backup (“spinning reserve”) for in case wind power rapidly goes down. Such a backup can be hydro, but if there is a lack of hydro, fast gas turbines are needed with a yield of around 30%, as other systems like combined cycle gas/steam generation (yield ~45%) are too slow in ramp up production.

      Renewables have zero obligation to regulate the network, that is done by “conventional” plants (including hydro). In some countries these are paid for that work, but keeping alive 100% backup for when there is no wind and solar power is not paid for…
      New storage techniques may emerge, but that must be attributed to the intermittent sources too, still making them much more expensive than fossil fuels…

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