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The Fossil ‘Fuelneral’

Ed Gillespie

22.09.16

The Fossil Fuelneral – 5 Reasons why we need to start preparing NOW

This week I spent three days in Scotland shining a bright light into the dark world of corporate lobbying that slows progress on climate action. The classic ‘FUD’ – Fear, Uncertainty & Doubt approach: From “It’s not happening” through “It’s happening, but it’s nothing to do with human activity” to “It’s happening, but it’s not possible to do anything about it economically” etc etc. Chronically delaying the changes we so urgently need.

Then I had the pleasure of attending the London launch of the late great David Fleming’s book ‘Lean Logic’. A true labour of love and respect by David’s mentee Shaun Chamberlain, this extraordinary and beautiful book brought back memories of wide-ranging and roving discussions with David when I first met him in the early years of Futerra and we were working together on communicating the wider impacts of supposedly ‘carbon-neutral’ nuclear power. An idea David in typical style found more than faintly risible.

These two events aligned in my mind around the idea of energy transitions – and we’re in the middle of one right now. Just see the work of Jeremy Leggett who has been bearing witness to this in his uniquely cumulative book, that has built chapter by chapter over the last 3 years ‘Winning the Carbon War’.

It’s always hard to see a paradigm shift when you’re smack bang in the middle of it. But unlike previous energy transitions, like when we shifted from burning whale oil to kerosene, it’s not ‘just’ the whales that will be relieved. It will be all of us. It really is time to begin preparing for the ‘Fossil Fuelneral’. And here’s 5 compelling reasons why…

  1. Air pollution is now, according to the World Health Organisation, the biggest environmental health risk globally – responsible for the death of 1 in 8 people or 7 million people annually. Approximately half of these deaths are due to indoor cooking stoves, the other half coming from internal combustion engines and industrial emissions. When we internalise the external costs of fossil fuel combustion in terms of the loss of and debilitating effects on human life alone, these indirect ‘subsidies’ make those paltry financial incentives given to renewables pale into insignificance by comparison.
  2. Coal is already dying. As one of the dirtiest and most carbon intensive sources of energy coal was always likely to be hit first and hardest by the transition away from fossil. But the pace has been rapid. Global coal giant Peabody filed for bankruptcy this year, fulfilling the Economist’s prediction it would go from ‘Hero to Zero’. China’s over-capacity of coal-fired energy has led to moratoriums on new power stations and mines. And closer to home the UK has committed to phase out coal by 2025.
  3. The renewable energy revolution is gathering inexorable pace. And solar is about to get very, very cheap indeed according to analyst Rameez Naam. In fact it is looking like the power of exponentials is likely to deliver a solar powered electricity system faster than we might imagine. In as little as 12 years suggests respected futurist Ray Kurzweil. That may be slightly over-optimistic but is probably ‘directionally correct’ given the latest solar bids in the Middle East coming in at just 2.42¢ per kilowatt hour (to put that in context the new Natural Gas Electricity price – excluding the external costs of carbon pollution – is around 7¢ per kilowatt hour)
  4. We can’t burn the fossil fuel reserves we already know we have if we want to stabilise climate change at between 1.5 (the agreement the world reached in Paris in December 2015) and 2 degrees. The evolving reality of the data is simple:
    • Thanks to Carbon Tracker we know that the world’s financial markets are carrying a huge ‘Carbon Bubble’ of ‘Unburnable Carbon, with up to five times more fossil fuel reserves listed as assets on stock markets than we can actually use.
    • Thanks to Oil Change International we now know that the potential carbon emissions from the oil, gas, and coal in the world’s currently operating fields and mines would take us beyond 2°C of warming. And the reserves in currently operating oil and gas fields alone, even with no coal, would take the world beyond 1.5°C.
  5. A just transition is vital. We need to transition millions of jobs and help economies and society around the world adjust to this dramatic shift. With some notable exceptions (I’m thinking Exxon here for obvious reasons, and their CEO Rex Tillerson’s memorable line at this year’s AGM that ‘the end of oil production is not acceptable for humanity’. For ‘humanity’ read ‘Exxon’) fossil fuel companies have helped us build the world around us. As a source of relatively cheap, available, abundant energy they have been extraordinary. But that potential has been exploited in often unforgiveable, greedy, reckless, destructive ways from the Niger Delta devastation to Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico. It’s time to close the chapter.

We are on the cusp of an incredible transformation of global energy. We must end new fossil fuel exploration now. We must leave most of the fossil fuel reserves we already have in the ground. We must change where the investments made in our name are made (#divestment). And we must electrify the world with renewables from the grassroots and ground up, creating a participatory, collaborative, decentralized system that we are all owners of. That is what the truly sustainable energetic society looks like. Let’s bring it on.

The Fossil Fuelneral is coming. And it’s going to be one hell of a wake…

Posted by Ed Gillespie

Ed is the Co-founder of Futerra, a celebrated slow traveller, author, serial green entrepreneur and investor.

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