We are a world largely addicted to carbon-producing fossil fuels. Oil, gas and coal continue to be the drug that global economies need and consume in massive quantities. Targets to make a significant shift to renewable energy sources are routinely missed and scepticism is already rife over whether goals that lie even 20 or 30 years in the future can ever be met.
All of this despite us knowing that fossil fuels are a finite resource that will run out, and that their use continues to threaten us with disastrous climate change. So what will it take for the world to shake its carbon addiction and successfully adapt to a new, cleaner, energy future?
Dr Ariel Bergmann, Lecturer in Energy Economics in the Centre for Energy, Petroleum & Mineral Law and Policy, says we need to adopt the thinking of war.
“We need a World War II-scale realignment of the economy,” said Dr Bergmann. “Over those years, around three-quarters of the countries on the planet significantly changed their economies to participate in this war, as they felt the need was so great it had to be done. There was a wholesale shift in economies and a price that required a huge commitment from those societies, for example, in the UK they had food rationing. But they did it, and I am sure most people on the Allied side would say that it was worth it to defeat the evil that was in front of them.
“The challenge we face now in avoiding an even more detrimental temperature increase of the planet is even greater than that, and if we are to meet it then we will have to collectively show the same kind of will. Unfortunately, I am not optimistic.
“If we wanted to - if we really, really wanted to - the planet could largely be weaned off carbon fuels in the next ten years. We have the technology largely available, and while there would be some big, and expensive, challenges relating to energy storage in particular, it would be possible. But it is not within sight.
“The internationally agreed goals for 2050, to limit a rise in global temperatures to well below 2 degrees are now only 34 years away, and at the current levels of investment we won’t achieve those goals. There needs to be a change in approach and attitude, but there is a glaring gap between realising that and acting upon it.”
A shift in primary energy sources is one that mankind has made before. Tracked over the past few hundred years there have been huge changes in where we found the energy for heat and light.
“This is a transition issue,” said Dr Bergman. “We used wood and charcoal for millennia until, in places like the UK, deforestation forced us to turn to alternative energy sources, in this case principally coal. We then used coal as a principal energy source for a couple of hundred years until in the mid-1800s we when started looking at oil, and even then mostly just for illumination. The arrival of cars and other industrial advances then made oil and gas the major energy sources, so there was a transition there from coal, one which we are still seeing the late stages of now.
“What we are looking at now is the next great transition, away from carbon fuels as our principal energy sources to low-carbon energy sources. It is an enormous challenge.
“You need two principal things from energy sources – heat value and transportation. For the latter in particular, oil has been a brilliant solution in many ways and is a particular challenge to replace. There are real practical issues that make it very difficult, not least economically. The benefits of using oil and gas are significant, it’s just the costs of using it are getting too large.
“Imagine you have a dirty, polluting car, spouting out exhaust fumes. It works well, but it isn’t environmentally friendly. You want to replace it with a nice, green, low-carbon vehicle. But you are still paying off the loan on the old car, and you still have the cost of running it and maintaining it until you can save the money to buy the new, environmentally friendly alternative.
“That is the situation we face on a massive scale with our energy supplies. We are still vitally dependent on oil, gas and even coal as our primary energy sources. But we need to make the shift to a new low-carbon alternative. For one thing, even if you dispute the entire climate change issue, these are finite resources and they will run out, so we may just be best advised to find a practical alternative to them! But we can’t just switch one off, and the other on. There is a huge transition, and it requires a monumental economic effort, in addition to the political and social action that would be needed.
“The entire economic criteria around renewables has been to keep them moving forward and developing them until the point where they become naturally preferable. That is a key point. At some point people will simply want to use renewables, even for purely economic reasons, but we have to be sure we have developed the capability to make it achievable. I don’t see us heading in the right direction right now.”
A popular line of debate in climate change and energy debate is that we will be so much further advanced technologically in future that we will have found solutions to the world’s problems.
Dr Bergman wryly observes, “I have a phrase I use – Sanctum Technologica. It typifies this attitude of technology as a sacred thing – it will save us from ourselves and lead us all to a better tomorrow. We don’t have to fix this – technology will fix it for us!
“This idea that we can invent and innovate our way out of any problem does have some historical resonance but not on anything like the scale of the issues that are facing us now. We really would be better advised to adopt a better line of planning.”
1 Feb 2016
The Challenge of Transitioning to Sustainable Energy