Phasing out fossil fuels

What would our vulnerable descendants choose: phasing out fossil fuels or a regulated managed decline of fossil fuels globally?

Phasing out fossil fuels is rightfully the all important climate change topic this Fall. After decades of failure to even peak greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and with escalating damage from climate events, it is imperative that emissions be reduced rapidly.

But ‘phasing out fossil fuels’ is a lie we are telling ourselves. It is imperative to reduce emissions, but without regulations not presently allowed, phasing out or phasing down fossil fuels will just continue to mean ineffectual business as usual until it is too late to save all we love and care for.

Heatwaves, fires and floods are raising havoc globally. We obviously need to reduce our use of fossil fuels to reduce emissions of a scale needed fast enough to stop extreme weather from getting even worse; but we’re still in pretend mitigation with emissions continuing to rise, with fossil fuel investment, exploration, production and use all continuing to rise, and with worrying signs that climate impacts are poised to get much worse. We need to keep the increase in temperature below a 2C rise but in reality we are headed for at least a 2.6-3C increase and most probably unimaginable catastrophe.

The overall climate science and, in particular, climate model predictions of global temperature rise due to emissions, have been accurate. But worryingly, actual extreme events seem to have happened earlier and the degree of damage seems to have been underestimated.

Ecologist Buzz Holling coined the term Surprise for unanticipated change to hierarchically organized ecosystems in reaction to radical anthropocentric change. The completely unpredicted weakening of the jet stream due to Arctic amplification is a prime example. Heatwaves and storms can now become parked, unmoved for extended periods, causing much more damage than was anticipated. We should expect more Surprises.

And much more worryingly, other non-linear, tipping point dangers seem to be in Surprise territory, accelerating faster than expected. The oceans were expected to heat up of course, but few in the climate science community seem to have anticipated today’s off the chart ocean temperatures or how this will effect melting ice sheets or hurricane formation or global temperature flows.

Those who have been warning for some time that our mitigation efforts were not calibrating risk properly – staying within benefit-cost analysis for economic reasons instead of regarding the building climate risks as existential – now point out that the monotonic warming dangers are proving far more costly economically than expected while we may be witnessing increasing  feedbacks such as forest fires and melting permafrost joining anthropocentric causes of increasing GHGs.

What is surely needed is an end to fossil fuel production and use – at least without workable, safe abatement of emissions if that is possible.

What is surely needed is a national and global regulated rapid wind-down of fossil fuel production and use to once and for all rapidly reduce emissions of GHGs. Instead ‘phasing out fossil fuels’ continues to mean the supposed displacement of fossil fuels by building renewable capacity. There is a world of difference.

Previous energy transitions have been additive with new sources of energy not displacing but adding to continuing levels of use of wood or coal, etc. Because there will not be any shortage of demand globally for energy in our intermediate future,  fossil fuels still being invested in, production still being planned for, will be burned somewhere; even with triple or quadruple the investment in renewables; all the present expanding reserves of fossil fuels will be burned and global temperatures will rise over 3C even without latent carbon feedbacks.

The producers are continuing to expand production because they aren’t worried about cheaper renewables displacing oil or gas – they know that without regulation to keep production in the ground that there will be no shortage of demand.

Global Energy Demand By Fuel

A report this Spring showed that while renewable capacity continues to grow like topsy, emissions continue to rise. We are just building a larger energy capacity, not reducing emissions.

Shouldn’t we know that historically new energy sources add to instead of displacing existing sources of energy; that renewables aren’t decreasing fossil fuel use, and that we shouldn’t expect more renewable capacity to displace fossil fuels of a scale needed before 2030?

There will be an inflection but it may not happen till 2040 or even later and then it will probably be too late. Building renewable capacity will make a future transition happen much more rapidly when and if we get serious about restricting production of fossil fuels, but again this will probably be too late. Build, build build doesn’t look like a path to needed emission reduction in this crucial decade. But using both arms of the mitigation policy scissors could radically reduce emissions (and not cause economic collapse).

So the phasing down of fossil fuels so often called for and discussed in the news will not and cannot reduce emissions in the urgent manner now needed. But actually regulating a wind-down of fossil fuels isn’t allowed – every nations economy and all of our lifestyles and livelihoods demand continuing fossil fuel production and use. So we lie to ourselves and pretend that the energy transition will work even as we continue to expand fossil fuel use, emissions continue to increase, and our climate predicament gets worse and worse.

There is no shortage of hopeful climate disinformation.  UN Secretary-General Guterres has been passionately using his bully pulpit to try and get publics and policymakers to act urgently on climate. He certainly has the best of intentions but instead of calling for an urgent and global managed decline of fossil fuel production he instead calls for more renewable capacity built more rapidly:

The world is still addicted to fossil fuels and the goal of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius is fast slipping out of reach, the UN chief warned.

 “Under current policies, we are headed for 2.8 degrees of global warming by the end of the century. The consequences will be devastating. Several parts of our planet will be uninhabitable. And for many, this is a death sentence,” he said. 

“Only renewables can safeguard our future, close the energy access gap, stabilize prices and ensure energy security,” he said. “ Together, let’s jumpstart a renewables revolution and create a brighter future for all.”

Isn’t this continuing denial that just wrongfoots those who are aware and deeply concerned about climate?

Globally we urgently need a phase out of fossil fuels but the phase out you will hear about all Fall leading up to COP28 will almost certainly be the pretend, build renewables to displace fossil fuels denial instead of the needed, urgent, regulated wind-down of of a now potentially fatal toxin. We are trapped within a conception of mitigation that keeps business as usual safe today but keeps emissions rising while the clock runs out, extreme events become more severe, mitigation gets more desperate, and catastrophe gets more inevitable.

The fossil fuel producers and those relentlessly economically centric are in control and they are messaging phase out or phase down fossil fuels – who are the champions of real, effective mitigation that will put actually winding down fossil fuel production on the agenda this Fall? Hopefully there is still time for effective mitigation but this is probably our last chance. Most importantly, agreement about who wins and who loses and what we want today shouldn’t leave out all future generations who are dependent upon us to do the right thing today so that their futures are secured and safe too.

A regulated managed decline of fossil fuels is possible without collapsing our present civilization. We could survive even thrive without fossil fuels using half the energy we use now – using energy at per capita levels equivalent to the 1960s. We could powerdown inside a Green New Deal style governmental support to a much less ‘stuff’ but more innovating, nurturing, economy. Degrowth is an evolving conception for how to use our wealth and technology for a less wasteful, more equitable society.

Effectively mitigate climate and our future gets brighter, more open-ended. Pretend to phase out fossil fuels and our problems just get worse and worse. We urgently need to use both arms of the mitigation policy scissors.

Bill Henderson is a climate activist

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