Fossil fuels still provide more than 84 percent of primary energy
How do we end fossil fuel production to meet climate goals in the next few decades?
In Ending Fossil Fuels: Why Net Zero is Not Enough, Holly Jean Buck explores the fundamental challenges of leaving fossil fuels in the ground in a world still dependent on them. Anyone who wants to push for ending fossil fuels, she explains, “will need a sophisticated and wide-ranging set of arguments to combat the reasoned, seductive logic of cleaner, recyclable fossil fuels.”
Get Ready to Ask and Answer Hard Questions
How long should we use fossil fuels? How will we end their use?
In the 2020s, these may sound like easy and simple questions. A carbon budget for limiting global average temperature rise to 2°C requires most global fossil fuel reserves to remain in the ground; that means a third of oil, half of gas, and over 80 percent of coal. And we know that 2°C is already a dangerous level of warming. It’s beyond obvious: we should stop using fossil fuels right now, and we need to put fossil fuel companies out of existence. “Leave it in the ground.” Next.
Yet these questions are not easy or simple. Three realities complicate leaving it in the ground.
Hard reality #1: Despite the rapid growth of renewables, fossil fuels still provide more than 84 percent of primary energy. Renewables (wind, solar, and biofuels) are growing fast but still provide just 5 percent, with hydro providing 6.4 percent and nuclear 4.3 percent. At the same time, about 770 million people in the world have no access to electricity, and 2.6 billion don’t have access to energy for clean cooking. The challenge is to increase access to energy while also decarbonizing it. Ceasing fossil fuel use before there are other options to replace this 84 percent of global energy use brings real risks of continuing or worsening energy poverty. This is often recognized by climate advocates—for example, when 432 environmental groups from 53 countries sent a letter to officials in the Biden Administration calling for an end to US nancing for the entire fossil fuel supply chain, they also noted that “very rare exceptions for fossil fuel projects intended solely for domestic energy consumption only in Least Developed Countries could be considered, but only after a thorough scenario analysis of all viable alternatives for meeting energy access demonstrates clear necessity and no viable alternatives.” It will be necessary to maintain this nuance and global perspective when discussing how to end fossil fuels.
Hard reality #2: Over half of global oil production, and even more than that of reserves, is owned by national oil companies. These are fully or majority-owned by governments. We may think of the household brands we see at filling stations— Shell, BP, Exxon, Chevron, Total, and others—but most oil companies are national oil companies, like Petrobras, Sinopec, National Iranian Oil Company, and Pemex. Shouldn’t this make it easy to end production? If the people own these resources, can’t we just stop using them? But it also makes it hard, because governments derive income from fossil fuels in myriad forms, from licenses to taxes on production and consumption. Turning away from those revenues in an unplanned fashion, as Nigeria had to do when the response to coronavirus cut production by 25 percent, puts government-funded services at risk.
Hard reality #3: Millions of people work in the fossil fuel industry. In the United States in 2019, oil and gas employed nearly 603,000 and 271,000 respectively, with coal jobs totaling about 74,800. (For comparison, solar employs about 240,000 and wind 120,000.) These jobs are often well-paying and support other jobs in the broader community.
Given all that, how do we end fossil fuel production to meet climate goals in the next few decades? The answer from policymakers seems to be: we don’t end it completely. Right now, the dominant policy framework and way of thinking about the challenge, which is net-zero emissions, lends itself to the scenario of continued and significant fossil fuel use. Net zero implies balancing some amount of remaining greenhouse gas emissions with some amount of carbon dioxide removals. In the past couple of years, net zero talk has sprouted up everywhere in corporate sustainability discourse as well as national goals.
Those of us who want a complete end to fossil fuels have to take seriously and prepare thoughtful answers to a difficult set of questions. If producing lower carbon fossil fuels can preserve livelihoods for families and stability for communities, isn’t that better than going completely to zero? Wouldn’t some amount of continued fossil fuel production, such as for gas peaker plants, avoid the risks of supply disruptions from an unbalanced grid? Or consider this: a recent analysis of how Los Angeles could be 100 percent renewable found that the costs for getting to 80 to 90 percent renewable energy are roughly the same for different scenarios, but they diverge for the last 10 to 20 percent depending on whether peaker plants are run on biofuels and a limited amount of gas with renewable energy credits, versus green hydrogen for the fully renewable scenario. The study also found nearly no additional air quality or public health benefits for making that last 10 to 20 percent of energy demand renewable. Could those extra tens of billions for the 100 percent renewable system be better deployed to solve other environmental or social challenges? A community might well prefer more money for schools or other infrastructure plus a 90 percent renewable energy system over a more expensive 100 percent one. These are the questions and tradeoffs that will have to be debated at local and regional levels.
Then there are the global questions: The United States or Canada or the United Kingdom could phase out fossil fuels, but what kind of difference to the global climate would that make if other countries are unable or unwilling to? How would phasing out fossil fuels in the global North affect the global South? Would production just go there? Isn’t there a risk that ending fossil fuels too soon, while billions still don’t have access to energy, will keep people in poverty? Is the dream of being fossil free just for environmentalists in rich countries?
Many people are thinking about how to answer these questions. Climate advocates, policymakers, scientists, and others are vigorously talking about the people and communities impacted by the shift away from fossil fuels. The “just transition” conversation has become mainstream.
But there’s also a pressing need for people in climate movements to continue to detail plans for phaseout and mainstream them, because the class of climate professionals is still too slow to do it. Climate justice and environmental justice movements have been shouldering this burden for years. Calls to keep it in the ground have resonated since anti-extraction movements in the mid-1990s in Nigeria and Ecuador. Groups like Oilwatch and Greenpeace took up these calls, and eventually the Leave It in the Ground Coalition emerged, which then went on to campaign against fracking in the 2010s. In 2016, the Lofoten Declaration for a Managed Decline of Fossil Fuel Production was created when groups came together in Lofoten, Norway, to advocate for managed decline. The movement has focused some attention to policies targeting the supply of fossil fuels, from national bans to treaties to manage decline.
At the same time, environmental justice advocates have focused attention on closing fossil fuel plants and infrastructure, and even when often underresourced, they have produced plans for doing so. Consider, for example, The Fossil Fuel End Game: A Frontline Vision to Retire New York City’s Peaker Plants by 2030, an analysis by a coalition of environmental justice groups that spells out a roadmap for phasing out gas peaker plants in the city and prioritizes retirements in environmental justice communities. Yet at the same time, while “supply-side” climate policy is becoming more common, it’s still entering the mainstream at a glacial pace relative to how acute the need is.
Professionals have gotten comfortable with talking about early retirement of coal infrastructure, and we may be at an inflection point where talking about the managed decline of all fossil fuels is a topic of polite conversation at “high-level” banquets. But there remains the challenge of following through with the talk.