A tanker explosion and fire north of Center City Philadelphia that caused the collapse of sections of Interstate 95, one of the busiest highways in the United States and the main highway connecting Maine to Florida, crystallizes the debate over fossil fuels in the country. Climate change issues are gaining urgency as the eerie reddish cloud from the Canadian wildfires that polluted the air in many eastern cities last week is about to emerge.

Each party will no doubt use the Philadelphia tragedy as justification for their own beliefs and policies. The anti-fossil fuel lobby will argue that this shows the dangers of our continued reliance on energy sources that are inherently dangerous. The burning tanker was carrying petrol. Gasoline is highly flammable, not to mention its potential greenhouse gas emissions both during transport and use.

Fossil fuel advocates will note that trucking any type of fuel is among the most dangerous forms of transportation. Even if we ignore for the moment that pipelines aren’t the most efficient way to deliver gasoline locally anyway, if gasoline could be transported through pipelines that members of the “anti” crowd are preventing from further development, this tragedy likely wouldn’t have happened. Pipelines can also explode, but all data shows that pipelines remain the safest means of transporting fossil fuel products, while also being among the most environmentally friendly.

What is likely to be lost in the debate is the infrastructure aspect, and specifically why one of the nation’s most important highways erupted and collapsed as quickly as it did. After all, the section that collapsed was part of a $212 million renovation project that was completed only four years ago.

In addition, some facts cannot be avoided. First, pollution is global. If we believe that fossil fuels are to blame and if we are approaching climate catastrophe, then the response must be global.

China is the world’s largest producer of CO2. It emits more CO2 than the United States and the European Union combined. While China trumpets that its non-fossil energy sources now exceed fifty percent of its total installed electricity generation capacity, it still uses far more fossil fuels, especially coal, than renewables. Last year, coal accounted for 56.2% of China’s total energy consumption, compared to 25.9% from renewable sources. In addition, in 2020 China was building more than three times as much new coal capacity as the rest of the world combined.

Regardless, China’s transition to renewables represents significant progress. Still, there are those who believe that fossil fuels must be phased out immediately. They warn that if this does not happen, there will be a climate catastrophe. But what they ignore is that if a full transition is indeed made in the West but not in China, the climate disaster they fear will still not be mitigated.

On the other hand, there are too many strange atmospheric events happening these days to dismiss them as many on the other side do. Each such climate event may have good individual reasons, such as poor forest management due to wildfires, but collectively it is hard to dispute that something unusual is going on with our weather. There are too many warning signs to ignore what is becoming increasingly obvious.

The question still remains, what are we going to do about it and what is the time frame? Again, without China fully on board, no immediate Western transition away from fossil fuels, if at all possible, is likely to produce the desired result.

There is no sign that China, which continues to open coal-fired power plants, will be fully on board anytime soon. In that case, the best option is to switch to renewables as quickly as possible, but knowing that we are decades away from any possible phase-out of fossil fuels. In the meantime, we must strive to make our society as low-emission as possible without destroying our world economy and creating the conditions for a social backlash so extreme that it reverses all the progress that has been made. We have seen how this can happen in Sri Lanka, the Netherlands and even Germany after the start of the Russo-Ukrainian war. To do it right and in the most environmentally friendly way possible, we need to take each step deliberately but quickly.

Although dedicated environmentalists will dispute this, in practice this means building our pipeline infrastructure to get as many dangerous tankers off the road as possible, and otherwise accepting the reality that as China increases its coal consumption, the ultimate goal of near-universal coal will be difficult to achieve producing “green” energy without going through a transition phase of more widespread natural gas consumption instead. It means not to phase out gas stoves completely, but on the contrary to support them, because overall they will only help accelerate the transition from coal to natural gas. It means, as Philadelphia is surprisingly doing now, studying the possibility of our cities with port facilities near natural gas deposits becoming export terminals so that we can encourage other countries to switch from coal to natural gas.

It means realizing that the billions of dollars the federal government has pledged for renewable energy development in the bipartisan Infrastructure Act, the Inflation Reduction Act and other recent legislation mean nothing if the projects to be proposed cannot be allowed in time.

Most importantly, it means that if we wish to revitalize our infrastructure while securing our planet’s climate, we must work within the realm of the possible, and not within the fantasy dreams of those for whom reality can be put aside to serve political or idealistic goals.

IRAsia builds new coal plants; Europe denies them
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MSNTanker fire causes part of Interstate 95 to collapse in Philadelphia; Complete rebuild expected to take ‘months’: Update

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