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A world without fossil fuels

WASHINGTON (THE WASHINGTON POST) – When climate activists march, chant or stage sit-ins, they are often calling for an end to those fossil fuels. Earlier this month at New York’s Climate Week, protesters urged world leaders to “end fossil fuels now” and sent a letter to US President Biden asking him to commit to phasing out fossil fuel extraction in the United States. United Nations Secretary General António Guterres hosted a climate summit where the only nations invited were those ready to commit to “no new coal, oil and gas.”

In any given year, the world produces staggering quantities of fossil fuels. Roughly 36.5 billion barrels of oil. Over 8 billion metric tonnes of coal. The United States alone extracts and processes over 100 billion cubic feet of natural gas. When those fossil fuels are burned, planet-warming gases are released. All that coal, oil and gas is the reason that September has already seen record-high temperatures and the world is likely to miss its goal of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

But what would happen if the world did suddenly stop extracting fossil fuels? And what does that mean for attempts to phase out something humanity has depended on for centuries?

Most everyone agrees that a sudden, abrupt halt in fossil fuel production – if, for example, the United States and Saudi Arabia and every other large producer shut down their oil wells all at the same time – would be catastrophic.

“Oh, dear God,” said Samantha Gross, director of the energy security and climate initiative at the Brookings Institution. “I don’t even know where to start.”

If fossil fuel production were stopped tomorrow, the world would quickly grind to a halt. Even in areas where a large portion of electricity is run on renewables, fossil fuels are often used to provide “firm” power that can come on at any time of the day or night. Without that power, electricity grids would see widespread blackouts. Within a few weeks, a lack of oil – still the major fuel used for trucking and shipping goods worldwide – would impede deliveries of food and other essential goods.

“Even if I could walk to the grocery store, there’d be no food there,” Gross explained. Governments would probably work to curb demand and ration remaining stores of fossil fuels – but even those reserves would last for only so long. The United States’ strategic petroleum reserve, for example, currently holds around 347 million barrels of oil; that would last the country just 17 days at current levels of use. It would last the world just 31/2 days.

Such a sudden phaseout isn’t, of course, what activists are really asking for. “The expectation isn’t that extraction will stop everywhere in the world,” said Kelly Trout, the research co-director at Oil Change International. Many groups are focused on preventing new oil and gas extraction, in line with models that show that any new oil and gas production will take the world over the 1.5-degrees-Celsius goal.


The International Energy Agency, for example, which models energy transitions to zero-out carbon emissions, says there is no need for the world to open new coal mines or develop oil and gas projects that have long lead times. But, “continued investment is required in some existing oil and gas assets and other approved projects,” the agency said in its latest report.

Olivier Bois von Kursk, a policy analyst at the International Institute for Sustainable Development, points out that oil and gas fields, on average, lose about 4 per cent of their production every year as reservoir pressure decreases. That’s close to the decline of roughly 3 per cent per year that the IEA modelled in its scenario for cutting emissions to zero by 2050.

“So you could just keep the fields that are already in operation,” von Kursk said.

But that would require a huge and rapid build-out of solar, wind, batteries and electric vehicles. The IEA predicts that the world will have to triple renewable energy capacity in just seven years to cut fossil fuel demand by 20 per cent. Countries will also need to push rapid expansion of electric trucks and further development of new technologies like carbon capture and hydrogen.

Still, new oil and gas wells continue to pop up all over the world. According to a recent report from Oil Change International, the United States is responsible for around one-third of planned fossil fuel expansion between now and 2050. On Friday, the Biden administration unveiled a plan to allow more offshore oil and gas leasing in the Gulf of Mexico over the next five years to ensure the government can also auction new offshore wind leases.

And policymakers and researchers argue over whether developed countries should phase out fossil fuel production first – since they’ve emitted the most carbon emissions to date – or continue to produce to ensure steady fossil fuel supplies for the rest of the word.

As the world transitions to clean energy, the build-out of renewables should be balanced with the phase-down of fossil fuels. But timing those two difficult, complex processes is easier said than done. IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol, who is helping lead the global push to eliminate unabated fossil fuels worldwide by 2050, said in a recent interview that he worries about how the shift could leave coal, oil and gas workers unemployed.

“The biggest worry I have is: ‘What are the implications of the clean energy transition in some of the segments of the population that are badly affected?'” Birol said. “In a not very well-planned transition, there could be a bit of a backlash with political implications.”

Climate activists and policymakers have long debated where climate action should focus: On cutting demand by building out renewables, phasing out gas-powered cars, etc – or cutting supply by stopping production of fossil fuels. So far, governments have not focused much on cutting supply. And activists are getting frustrated.

“Any new leasing will make the world more dangerous and less prosperous,” Mattea Mrkusic, energy transition policy lead at the climate advocacy group Evergreen Action, said in a statement. “We don’t have time to go backward.”