As we stare down the barrel of a world totally transformed (read: destroyed) by climate change in the not-so-distant future, a lot of the brightest minds around the world are spending a good deal of time trying to figure out how to mitigate its effects. Considering that fossil fuel use is the primary driver of climate change, it makes sense that a lot of the proposed climate change solutions involve phasing out fossil fuels entirely. While some have derided this fossil fuel divestment plan as unattainable, others think it's entirely possible—so long as we have 20 to 80 years to make it happen.
Unfortunately, ridding ourselves of fossil fuels by 2100 (a plan the G7 leaders were all too happy to pat themselves on the back about last year) will be too little, too late. If we keep burning fossil fuels at the current rate, some have predicted that we will cross a threshold into "environmental ruin" as early as 2036—but it doesn't have to be this way.
In fact, according to a new study released last week by a major energy think tank in the UK, we could completely phase out fossil fuels within a decade…if we really wanted to.
Published in Energy Research and Social Science, the study was led by Benjamin Sovacool, the director of the Sussex Energy Group at the University of Sussex. As Sovacool notes in the introduction to his study, "transitioning away from our current global energy system is of paramount importance" and "the speed at which a transition can take place—its timing, or temporal dynamics—is a vital element of consideration."
The reason why Sovacool is so concerned about how fast we can move away from our current energy paradigm is due to something that has been called the "climate paradox," or the idea that by the time humans realize they need to divest their economies of fossil fuels, they will have passed the point of no return for climate catastrophe.
According to Sovacool, current "mainstream" projections for phasing out fossil fuels rely on analyzing energy transitions in the past, which can often paint an overly bleak picture about how long an energy transition would take now. So Sovacool took it upon himself to re-analyze the energy transitions of the past up to the present day in order to present a more realistic picture of how quickly the planet could phase out fossil fuels.
As detailed in the report, it took Europe between 96 to 160 years to transition from wood to coal. Yet for electricity to move from a fringe experiment to widespread usage only took between 47 to 69 years. According to Sovacool, an energy transition could happen even faster today, thanks to the threat of climate induced disasters coupled with an unprecedented technological innovation.
Sovacool highlights a number of modern energy transition success stories to drive his point home: Ontario completely divested from coal as an energy source within 11 years (it had previously accounted for 25 percent of the province's energy); Indonesia moved two-thirds of its population from kerosene to LPG stoves in just three years; within six years of implementing the Proálcool program, 90 percent of Brazilian cars could run on ethanol.
These are just three of the ten examples cited by Sovacool in his study, but according to him, each success story has a few features in common: Where energy transitions have been quick and effective, there has generally been strong government intervention coupled with shifts in the consumer behavior, which are themselves generally driven by government provided incentives.
Yet as Sovacool notes in his study, "the implication here is that energy transitions have no magic formula;" rather, the nature and effectiveness of energy transitions are largely context dependent. Still, based on his revised historical analysis, Sovacool agrees with Al Gore, who in 2008 stated that he believed it was possible to transition to an entirely clean-energy regime within a decade.
"The mainstream view of energy transitions as long, protracted affairs, often taking decades or centuries to occur, is not always supported by the evidence," said Sovacool. "Moving to a new, cleaner energy system would require significant shifts in technology, political regulations, tariffs and pricing regimes, and the behavior of users and adopters. Left to evolve by itself—as it has largely been in the past—this can indeed take many decades. A lot of stars have to align all at once. But we have learnt a sufficient amount from previous transitions that I believe future transformations can happen much more rapidly."