Discussions of alternative energy sources are frequently focused on the need to curtail the damages that hydrocarbons inflict on the environment.

It is interesting that the same discussions often neglect to incorporate an equally compelling issue with our reliance on fossil fuels. Existing global reserves of oil, natural gas and coal will not last forever. The clock is ticking and the most recent generations will likely live to see a world where these resources no longer exist.

Each year, BP plc, the company formerly known as British Petroleum, publishes its Statistical Review of World Energy. This summer, the 63rd edition of this document asserted that global oil reserves at the end of 2013 were 1.688 trillion barrels. The same report provided context for this figure in terms of the number of years the stated reserves would last at current rates of consumption; 53. According to the same BP study, “proved” reserves of natural gas will be depleted within two years following the exhaustion of oil. Coal, the third pillar of the fossil fuel menu, is believed to have the potential to last into the 23rd century. However, in the absence of its fellow hydrocarbon fuels, it is a logical assumption that consumption rates would increase and reserves vanish sooner.

By themselves, these ratios dictate an immediate need for the development of alternative renewable fuel sources. Add to the equation the impact of the burning of hydrocarbon-based fuels on the environment, and every possible scenario without alternative energy sources escalates to catastrophic proportions in the not-too-distant future.

Advocates of reduced consumption, who represent this as a viable alternative to extend the reserves of these key resources, fail to incorporate the growth in population in their theory. As remaining reserve estimates are based on current consumption ratios, reductions will be required to simply offset additional demand from increased population and developing nations.

Proponents of natural gas may argue that as methods of extraction from non-conventional deposits continue to develop, the economically viable reserves will increase exponentially. This holds great promise as this cleanest-burning fossil fuel has multiple applications including electrical generation and transportation. However, relying solely on technology that has yet to be developed could be equated to counting on a hand of blackjack to make your mortgage payment.

Many point to bio fuels as a viable alternative. The facts is, however, with a world population in excess of seven billion and growing, the use of arable land for anything other than the production of food becomes less and less practical. Other renewable sources such as solar panels, wind turbines, steam generators and hydroelectric projects, produce electricity, placing additional pressure on the timeline for development of replacements for combustion engines and other infrastructure that directly utilize petroleum.

Given this reality, the obvious question is “what are we doing about it?”

Yes, governments have introduced objectives and legislation, establishing targets for reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions. But the fact remains that more than 80 per cent of the global energy supply is fossil-fuel based. Governments at multiple levels have also provided incentives for the implementation of renewable-energy projects in the form of grants, loan guarantees and favorable tax treatment.

As an example, in Canada, pulp and paper manufacturers have achieved significant increases in the amount of clean electrical power generated as a byproduct of their main business processes. These accomplishments coincided with introduction of the Natural Resources Canada’s Pulp and Paper Green Transformation Program, which allocated up to $1 billion to assist in the cost of these programs in grants. On the surface, this would seem to confirm that alternative energy technology is attainable, as long as the government is prepared to carry the cost.

A key question is whether this is an economic or an ethical issue. We did not look to the government to provide us with a tax incentive when we taught our children how to cross the street safely, so why is there an expectation of financial reward for ensuring that the same children will have a safe environment 50 years from now.

One of the largest logistical issues impeding the development of alternative energy sources would appear to be either an unwillingness of the general population to accept reality or a failure to ensure that they are properly informed of the situation. Based solely on observation, procrastination is a part of humanity. Whether the actual number remaining in the existing hydrocarbon reserves is 50 years or 100, it will be here soon. Given the scope and breadth of the challenge clearly in front of us, we need to put our support behind the business leaders and innovators who are willing to accept it and work towards a solution. It likely will not have much direct impact on those making the decisions today, but their children will probably appreciate their efforts.