Fossil Fuels: Can Humanity Truly Break Its Addiction?

Getty Images

 According to experts, we stand on the brink of a significant civilizational shift.

We are poised to surpass a monumental moment in the coming years — reaching the 'peak' of fossil fuel consumption. It might have already occurred. This marks the point where the world hits the highest level of coal, oil, and gas usage, signaling a subsequent decline in demand.

While this achievement is noteworthy and deserving of more enthusiastic celebration, it also prompts vital questions. The foremost among them is will the transition to a cleaner energy system will occur rapidly enough or whether we risk environmental consequences that could irreversibly harm the planet.

The primary focus of the massive UN climate conference in Dubai is addressing the crucial question: Can we transition to cleaner energy systems swiftly enough? While we may be approaching the peak of fossil fuel consumption, the magnitude of the fossil fuel "mountain" is greater than many of us realize.

The International Energy Agency (IEA), a highly regarded global authority on energy matters, anticipates that global fossil fuel use will reach its zenith in 2025, even without the implementation of new climate policies by governments. IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol deems this a significant "historic turning point."

Understanding the enormity of the challenge at hand, renowned expert Vaclav Smil, who specializes in the role of energy in human society, has emphasized that energy is not merely another input in the global economy, akin to steel, innovation, or information technology — it is the very essence of the economy.

"The economy is essentially converting one form of energy into another, that's all it is, right? Without having energy, there is no economy," he conveyed to me.

Vaclav Smil expresses deep skepticism about the ease with which we can detach ourselves from the fuels contributing to global warming. Describing our society as fundamentally reliant on fossil fuels, he underlines the staggering scale of our consumption — a billion tonnes of steel annually, four billion tons of cement, and four billion tons of liquid fuels. These numbers are so colossal that they are almost beyond our comprehension.

This underscores the profound significance of energy in every aspect of our lives. Despite our species existing for about 300,000 years, the overwhelming majority of that time (299,000 years) was characterized by short lives marked by drudgery and poverty. A transformative shift began around 1800 when we started tapping into the immense reservoirs of fossilized sunlight.

The adoption of coal, oil, and gas ignited the industrial revolution, propelling explosive economic growth. The transition saw the displacement of horses by the steam engine, followed by the internal combustion engine, and eventually, the jet engine.

Throughout these advancements, the human population experienced remarkable growth. From a few million individuals at the conclusion of the ice age, the population surged to a billion at the onset of the industrial revolution. Presently, there are over eight billion human beings on Earth.

The unparalleled productivity of the industrial era has ushered in a level of prosperity and health that would astonish our grandparents. In contrast to our hunting and gathering ancestors who managed with about 10 gigajoules of energy annually, the average American now utilizes 50 times that amount, as estimated by Professor Smil.

In essence, the energy mountain we have scaled is truly colossal. While we might be approaching the peak of fossil fuel usage, a staggering 80% of the energy we currently consume still originates from these non-renewable sources.

This presents the central challenge for the impending energy revolution, a topic under discussion at Cop28 in Dubai — the transition to renewable energy. The pressing question remains: How is this transition progressing?

Wind and solar, hailed as the great hopes for a cleaner energy future, have experienced significant growth, contributing to approximately 12% of electricity generation in 2022, according to IEA figures. This is a substantial increase from virtually zero just a few decades ago.

However, despite their rapid expansion, coal, oil, and gas still dominate electricity generation, accounting for 70% of the total. Moreover, electricity represents only one fifth of the world's total energy consumption. Consequently, wind and solar, while making strides in the electricity sector, currently only contribute around 2% to the global energy supply.

The approaching peak of the fossil fuel mountain is less attributed to the rise of renewables and more to the enhanced efficiency of power stations, steel works, cement kilns, fertilizer plants, glass factories, ships, planes, and cars worldwide.

This raises a critical question: Can we adapt to a future without heavy reliance on fossil fuels?

Chris Stark, the head of the UK's Climate Change Committee, offers a more optimistic perspective compared to Professor Smil. At COP28, he highlighted that transitioning away from fossil fuels involves electrifying nearly everything, and electric devices generally exhibit greater efficiency than their fossil fuel-powered counterparts.

Stark emphasizes the efficiency gains in electrification, citing examples like electric vehicles, which don't waste energy like traditional cars. He notes, "Think of the heat that comes off the bonnet of your car; it is wasted energy. You don't get that with an EV."

Moreover, Stark underscores the efficiency difference between electric and gas heating systems. While a gas boiler provides one unit of heat for every unit of energy input, an electric-powered heat pump can yield three units of heat. Stark terms this phenomenon as "demand destruction," emphasizing that the shift to electric solutions reduces overall energy demand, making the energy mountain smaller.

Stark also points out that renewable electricity is often more cost-effective than fossil fuels, suggesting that the transition will eventually save money for consumers. Importantly, he contends that government subsidies may not be necessary, as private investment could bear the brunt of the transition.

However, he acknowledges that upfront costs for renewables are significant, involving expenses in installing solar panels or wind turbines. The long-term savings stem from the fact that the fuel—sun and wind—is free.

The upfront costs associated with renewable energy projects pose a challenge for poorer countries that struggle to afford expensive initiatives. Prime Minister Mia Mottley of Barbados has been instrumental in addressing this issue. In countries like Germany, an investor raising funds for a solar farm pays a loan interest rate of four or five percent per year, while in Zambia, it can be as high as 20%, according to Mottley's team.

Mia Mottley aims to drive down these interest rates and has gained support from the new head of the World Bank, based in Washington, which assists developing countries in advancing their economies. By mitigating some of the risks associated with investing in renewables in developing nations, Mottley believes this could unlock hundreds of billions of dollars in loans from banks and other commercial organizations.

While progress is being made, it's essential to recognize the enormity of the challenge. The International Energy Agency predicts a decline in the share of fossil fuels in the global energy supply from around 80% for decades to 73% by 2030. IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol emphasizes that the transition to clean energy is inevitable and unstoppable.

However, the urgency is clear. To address the climate crisis, the world needs to electrify everything for everyone on the planet, and this needs to happen almost simultaneously. The scientific consensus suggests that we have only a couple of decades to achieve this monumental task. So, the reason we haven't fully solved the climate problem even after 28 COP conferences lies in the magnitude of the challenge and the pressing need for a coordinated and rapid global response.