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Get more fibre

15 May 2019 | OP ED Watch

If fossil fuels really are a threat to the environment it’s still not an open-and-shut case that governments should go to war with them. It requires a cost-benefit analysis one of whose branches is to see whether innovation doesn’t solve the problem one way or another. Like a Calgary proposal to turn CO2 into nanofibres. Possibly they’re not on your shopping list. But they are on the shopping list of firms that use them as at least partial replacements for metal from cars to wind turbines to construction. And if engineering PhD student Mina Zarabian of the U of C’s Schulich School of Engineering really can get them out of your factory chimney, well, she’s going to be very rich and your car will weigh less.

It’s remarkable the positive knock-on effects of a very clever invention. They almost rival the negative ones of a very stupid intervention. For instance, if nanofibres make a car lighter, it will use less fuel. They might even reduce the environmental footprint of wind power, which is a lot higher than enthusiasts often let on if you consider the cost of mining the raw materials, welding the frames and so on. But if so, they won’t do it because a politician told a bureaucrat to tell a citizen to make it happen. And if a politician tells a bureaucrat to tell you to use solar not that silly old natural gas, it will hurt the economy, drive up power bills, discredit politicians and on and on.

As has been observed, the stone age didn’t end because we ran out of stone. The steam age didn’t end because we ran out of steam. And the oil age won’t end because we run out of oil, endless predictions of “peak oil” notwithstanding. It will end because someone invents something better and we run out and buy it.

Money can’t buy happiness, of course. But it’s nice to have anyway. And it would be nice to have a reliable source of affordable energy that didn’t carry the costs of oil, let alone coal, including that too much of it comes from nasty regimes. But as we’ve also observed before, telling us not to use oil because we’re too stupid to realize that wind and solar also work is itself stupid. If they really were cost-effective, you’d no more have to force people to switch than governments had to make us get off the horse and into a car. (Meanwhile telling us not to use nuclear even though it does work is, well, really stupid.)

We’re not convinced that man-made CO2 is a crisis. Certainly one consequence of the increase in atmospheric CO2 over the past half-century has been a “greening” of the less fertile parts of the planet, which is good for everyone and everything except, perhaps, desert enthusiasts. But if turning CO2 into nanofibres is technically and economically feasible, people will start doing it not because they’ve been slapped on the wrist for emitting CO2 but because they’ve been patted on the wallet for using nanofibres. And if not, subsidizing it will just make us worse off.

So let’s hear it for human ingenuity. But let’s not apply it to making life difficult by devising complicated, frustrating government regulations that steer us away from genuinely efficient win-win solutions.

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