World could kick fossil fuel habit in a decade — study

Source: Umair Irfan, E&E reporter • Posted: Thursday, April 28, 2016

The world could wean itself off fossil fuels in as little as a decade, according to a recent report.

Looking at historical shifts from different technologies and fuel sources, Benjamin Sovacool, a professor of energy policy at the University of Sussex in the United Kingdom, sought to figure out how long those changes took and how long future transitions would take.

The timing is a crucial factor, since climate change is an urgent problem and governments need to place long-term bets on their energy production that continue for decades.

“The question is actually simple,” Sovacool said. “The answer is very complex.”

In a paper published earlier this year in the journal Energy Research & Social Science, Sovacool examined 10 case studies of technology transitions, like the switch from wood to coal and from coal to electricity in Europe.

From one perspective, such transitions are slow and take decades, sometimes more than a century. It took Europe between 96 and 160 years to move from wood to coal, for example.

Another perspective holds that these changes are aggregations of smaller, more rapid shifts, like the invention of coal-fired stoves, improvements in coal mining and dwindling wood supplies from deforestation.

Climate change threat not enough to spark change

Part of the problem is how you define the scale of the transition. “If your scale is the globe, then yes, transitions are very slow,” Sovacool said. However, within countries, provinces and cities, certain technology shifts can happen much faster, like how France rapidly scaled up nuclear energy, producing more than 70 percent of its electricity from reactors in less than two decades.

The case studies showed that in many instances, technology or energy transitions were rapid once a certain set of conditions arose, like the right technology, a government policy or a movement in the market.

What does this mean for getting the world off fossil fuels?

“Previous transitions tended to happen almost by chance,” Sovacool said. “Looking forward, we can be more pragmatic.”

With the right incentives and motivations, the world could quickly shift away from fossil fuels within a decade. Rather than groping in the dark, deliberate policies could lead to smaller, rapid steps that in aggregate would accelerate the world away from fossil fuels faster than any previous energy change.

“In many of the transitions that we identified, you had to have strong, stable consistent policy,” Sovacool said. “Waiting for the market doesn’t move us fast enough.”

This would still require a broad vision, as well as a multipronged approach to cutting fossil fuel use, ranging from pricing carbon to quantifying health benefits of clean air to tax incentives for alternatives to new, well-paying jobs.

“Climate change seems to be a necessary factor, but it’s not sufficient by itself,” Sovacool said. “You need to tie [the transition] to other co-benefits.”

Taking a ‘moral stand’

John Rogers, a senior energy analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said the study provides a unique and important approach to the global fight against climate change. “I think this kind of historical perspective is really useful,” he said.

However, he noted that people are now more detached from where their energy comes from now than they were in the era of coal and biomass around the turn of the 20th century, so debates around the energy supply may come across as too esoteric for citizens to demand action.

“What we’re most interested in is getting that lumen of light as cleanly and as cheaply and as efficiently as possible,” Rogers said. “For the average customer, it’s hard to tell the difference between dirty energy and clean energy. We need to make sure we all have a broad enough perspective.”

Thomas Princen, a professor of natural resources at the University of Michigan, observed that changing the culture, not necessarily technology, might be the biggest hurdle slowing progress away from fossil fuels.

“Transitions are very much cultural and political affairs,” he said.

It’s not enough to make fossil fuels a more expensive option than renewables; the world has to take a moral stand against coal, oil and natural gas at the international level to cut emissions at a pace fast enough to avert dangerous levels of warming.

Cultural transitions, however, are difficult to observe, measure and direct, Princen said. To begin changing the culture around energy, he suggested creating a language that better outlines sustainability and environmental stewardship within economic constraints.

“We have a language of extraction and expansion,” Princen said. “We don’t have a language for living within our means.”

Despite these challenges, Princen didn’t rule out the world crossing a tipping point that would lead to a rapid drop in fossil fuel consumption. “Before the revolution, everyone says it’s impossible,” he said. “After the revolution, everyone says it was inevitable.”