“There must be some way out of here”, said the joker to the thief,’ are the opening words of a song by Bob Dylan. In the song, the joker hates the different values of society that the thief is trying to establish. It is much like what some climate activists are doing….trying to establish a different value system because of imminent dangers to our planet.
As a climate leader with Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project, I evangelize through presentations to groups all over the country, trying to spread a value system that is empathetic to planet Earth. One question that I get asked consistently is if it is possible to reverse climate change? I always sport an optimistic smile and reassure the audience that it is possible. My optimism is the joker.
The reason for climate change is the uncontrolled emission of greenhouse gases. Is it possible to reduce these emissions drastically by moving away completely from fossil fuels? Some scholars say it is possible for the world to transition away from fossil fuels in a far shorter time-frame than otherwise imagined – perhaps within a decade and a half.
Benjamin K. Sovacool’s interesting research paper, ‘How long will it take? Conceptualizing the temporal dynamics of energy transitions’, discusses this issue. He says that all the earlier transitions took many decades - in the USA, crude oil took half a century from its exploratory stages in the 1860s to capturing 10 percent of the national market in the 1910s, then 30 years more to reach 25 percent; natural gas took 70 years to rise to 20 percent; coal needed 103 years to account for just five percent of total energy consumed, and an additional 26 years to reach 25 percent; Nuclear took 38 years to reach a 20 percent share of electricity, a point reached in 1995.
So, in general, it seems that transitions take between 50 and 70 years. At the global scale, we see even longer time frames involved with energy transitions. Coal surpassed the 25 percent mark in 1871, more than 500 years after the first commercial coal mines were developed. Crude oil surpassed the same mark in 1953 about nine decades after Edwin Drake drilled the first commercial well in Titusville, Pennsylvania, in 1859.
Notwithstanding the above, the world has also seen massive transitions that have happened within a decade. China transitioned its rural households to an improved cooking stove that affected more than half a billion people in just 8 years in the 1990s. France transitioned to nuclear energy rapidly as a consequence of the 1973 oil crises, growing from four percent of national electricity supply in 1970 to almost 40 percent by 1982. Denmark transitioned from natural gas to coal in just five years – from 1976 to 1981.
In 2003, the government of Ontario in Canada committed to retiring all coal-fired electricity generation by 2007 for climate change and health reasons. Coal generation thus declined from 25 percent of provincial supply in 2003 to zero in 2014. A government study estimated that the “coal switch” would reduce some 330,000 cases of coal-related illnesses to 2,460 and more than 700 coal-related deaths to just six. Ontario is on track to see renewable sources of electricity grow to 46 percent of supply by 2025.
All previous transitions such as that from wood to coal or coal to oil occurred without the accumulation of the knowledge we have currently about the sociology, politics, and economics of energy transitions. This knowledge we have has the potential to minimize the time needed and hasten the transition to renewable energy away from fossil fuels.
So there is hope, and my optimism is not completely misplaced. The joker in me smiles!...