Why is the energy transition crucial? Why must we transition away from fossil fuels and the economy of extraction?

July 1, 2017

In Paris in 2015, nations agreed to on a temperature limit as far below 2 C as possible, aiming for 1.5C.  Scientists have said the lower the temperature that can be reached, the better.  Indeed, the Antarctic is at risk of melting unless we return to the global average temperatures of the 1970s.  The worst hurricanes are twice as severe (more precipitation, slower passage, greater wind speeds) than they used to be. Clearly, we must shut off the emissions tap–stop filling, indeed overflowing, the bathtub that is our global atmosphere.

There is no question that the Earth and its peoples are suffering.  We must turn around our emissions and dependence on fossil fuels now. The entire atmospheric carbon budget (the US has used about 30% of this space with 5% of the population) is close to exhaustion.  It is time for us all to turn away from this path.

The question is:  how do we get off fossil fuels as fast as possible? We must shift what our communities do and expect and where we are investing, now.

Already, some cities are banning combustion vehicles in city centers.  Life, our future and industry will be best served by undertaking the shift now and not doubling down on the equivalent of horse-drawn carriages, when these shifted to combustion vehicles in just a decade.  Now electricity production and transport are ready for a shift, even if some find it most profitable to continue the old model as long as possible. If we don’t, we waste the mineral resources of the earth and the energy used in manufacturing.  We strand the assets of our children making things that will not operate for their full useful life, wasting, energy, and polluting the air and water with every additional fossil-fuel using thing we make and buy.

Those who care about all life and the common good insist on making this shift to the common good and care of our common home. We must turn away from an economy of extraction and exploitation, toward a generative economy respectful of our living systems, Earth, and the clean water and clean air all lives depend on.  We do not have the right to harm, dirty, or use up what actually belongs to future generations.

We can turn toward clean, often locally-produced energy and clean vehicles in transport and decide that water, air, land, health and distribution of these and electricity are common goods.  We must help each other make the shift we all need toward life and flourishing for all.

The fossil fuel industry needs to be wound down in an orderly fashion now as every year of delay makes the needed reductions (yearly pace of change) that much harder, sharper, and deeper.  Our cities, organizations, utilities, governments, and vehicles need to transition get off fossil fuels now.

Why we must transition away from fossil fuels and the economy of extraction?  There are many reasons related to life and the ability of all people and cultures to flourish.  These are just a few…

  1. First, all life matters.  All life is sacred and has inherent dignity. We do not have the right to take life or destroy creation or common goods, including the necessities of life for others, especially clean air and water, climate, and land that are common resources (Laudato Si 23-32).  Laudato Si’, Evangelii Gaudium, and social teaching also speak to housing and employment as human rights, an economic system that allows life and flourishing for all.  In addition to culture, life and community sustenance, and environmental impacts, health is a growing consideration related to life, as discussed in this section.

The World Health Organization (WHO) tells us dirty air is killing 570,000 children under the age of 5 every year, more than any other single cause, including malaria and unsafe drinking water. That new report says millions more babies are born prematurely because their mothers have been inhaling pollution, and further millions more will grow up with lifelong respiratory conditions such as asthma or reduced lung capacity or brain impacts.  Air pollution from fossil fuels has been known to be toxic since at least the 1940s, when fossil fuel companies began trying to redirect public concerns (tobacco interests later employed these same public relations experts to cast doubt on health effects).  Now we know even more.

Air pollution has recently been found to prompt inflammation and disease in numerous organs, affecting people at even low levels of pollution, previously thought to be “safe”.  Doctors now state that particulate air pollution is like lead pollution, there is no evidence of a safe threshold even at levels far below current standards.  The WHO estimates 7 million premature deaths are linked to air pollution, annually. Children, the unborn, elders, and the economically poor are among the most at risk.  The set examined by the Global Burden of Diseases counted 5.5 million early deaths from air pollution in 2013 and noted “air pollution is the fourth highest risk factor for death globally and by far the leading environmental risk factor for disease.” This counts air pollution deaths from lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and respiratory infections but not the wider set of diseases known to be connected to air pollution today nowThe savings just from health costs and early death with the old set of diseases would cover the cost of shifting to renewables worldwide, not to mention the suffering involved, new diseases or other costs, or the benefits of more jobs.

Traffic is typically the biggest source of urban air pollution, even in places where other sources are large factors. Due to the health impacts, doctor-researchers are now saying “we need to focus on strategies that lower exposure everywhere and all the time.” Small particulate pollution is associated with smaller total cerebral brain volume even in low pollution areas and among otherwise relatively healthy adults.  They see changes in brain structure, including covert brain infarcts (silent stroke) that are otherwise indicators of age-related brain atrophy.  Such exposure and changes are linked to poorer cognitive function, dementia and other neurological problems, associated with small vessel disease.  Air pollution has also been decisively shown to impair cognitive performance and cause mental health problems, including anxiety and depression, in addition to being associated with increased suicide risk and rises in breast cancer, autism, appendicitis cases, and more.  Those living or walking near exhaust sources (often lower income) suffer more, but air pollution is sufficiently toxic that even in rural areas where levels are low (e.g., one third of allowed levels in the US), physical effects and early deaths are discernible, per unit (µg/m3) of pollution.

A moral response and effective action are required from all people of conscience. As Pope Francis says:  “The environment is a collective good” that everyone has the duty to protect — a duty that “demands an effective collaboration within the entire international community,” also see Laudato Si’ (LS), 23-32.  He also states that “an ecological debt is owed by the global north to the global south, due to disproportionate use of natural resources by certain countries over long periods of time resulting in the economic imbalances and inequities that we see today.”(LS, 52-53).

Inequality is getting worse. By 2017, the world’s 8 richest men held more wealth than half of humanity.  The wealth of this small oligarchy has risen over 45% since 2010 while the wealth of the 3.6 billion on the other end of the spectrum has declined by 38% — over a trillion dollars in that period.  Yeb Saño, former Filipino climate negotiator spoke of “stark realization that winning our fight to save the environment is something we cannot do without tackling root causes, without confronting the malaise of inequality.”

  1. There is a big difference with the effects of 1.5 vs. 2 C.

The latest research from Nature underscores that what we do in the next decade or two will determine whether many coastal cities worldwide are still viable by the end of this century.  Whenever anyone says, climate change is already happening or going to happen, we must remind them that we can still choose responsibility for life and to future generations.  Deep cuts in fossil fuel pollution will enable vastly lower sea levels and hundreds of millions fewer people displaced every year in the last half of this century.  In 2014 the IPCC said that 2 m of sea level rise (SLR) could occur this century and NASA scientists and others have said that over 3 m of SLR by 2100 is possible.  If we think 2C is an okay target, that will ultimately submerge many cities, including New York, London, Rio de Janeiro, Cairo, Calcutta, Jakarta and Shanghai. At 2C, 20% of the world’s population will eventually have to migrate away from coasts swamped by rising oceans given that temperature is enough to melt polar ice and produce 75 ft of sea level rise over the next centuries, remaining there for more than 10,000 years – twice as long as known human history.   If today’s burning of coal, oil and gas is not curbed, the sea will rise by 150 ft, completely changing the map of the worldEven at 2 C rather than 1.5 C, heatwaves are 40% longer and heavy rainfall is 40% higher, freshwater declines by almost twice as much, maize production is down by twice as much and wheat by 40%.  We go from losing 90% of coral reefs to nearly all (98%). As Pope Francis said about the seas and coral reefs, “we have no right.”

Infographic: How do the impacts of 1.5C of warming compare to 2C of warming?

Further permanent damage to species and the oceans is occurring at the same time.  Increasing carbon in the atmosphere from burning/combustion has already made the ocean 30% more acidic (the scale is like the Richter scale), which impedes shell formation and also affects phytoplankton, the base of the oceanic food web.  Meanwhile, biologists say half of all species could be extinct by end of century due to the change we are causing with our systems that pursue profit and individual righteousness over the common good, protection of common resources and communal well-being.  “Because of us, thousands of species will no longer give glory to God by their existence…We have no such right” (LS, 33).

  1. The carbon and emission pollution that we are putting in the atmosphere stays there near permanently from the perspective of our generation. Climate change due to increases in CO2 concentration is largely irreversible for 1,000 years after emissions stop, and 20% of the global-warming pollution we emit will still be there in 20,000 years.

A lot of the heat trapped by carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases is stored in the world’s oceans, and will dissipate at a very slow rate, as water is very good at holding onto heat (Solomon et al., 2009).

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Predicted decrease in concentration of carbon dioxide for the next millennium if it were to peak in around 2010 (Solomon et al., 2009).

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Current and predicted surface warming expressed as temperatures for the next millennium. Note that these temperatures do not decrease even though the carbon dioxide concentration has decreased after 2010 (see Figure 1) (Solomon et al., 2009).

People of faith, scientists, and Indigenous Peoples insist that the right to life must be understood in terms of generations.  We owe a right to life to current and future children and generations.  It is immoral to leave our trash and problems to future generations or expect them to solve climate change we have caused.  It is our responsibility and the time is now.  “We have defaulted on our promissory note and now is the time to honor it.”

We cannot wait.  We cannot put off children and the economically poor or those suffering already from increased storms, droughts, hunger, and displacement.  “We cannot wait any longer to resolve the structural causes of poverty in order to cure our society of an illness that can only lead to new crises.”  We are locking in emissions, every time we produce a new fossil-fuel powered vehicle or plant.  In 2011, the International Energy Agency and economist Fatih Birol published analysis of the life cycle of our investments and how they “lock in” additional years of fossil fuel emissions each year we produce petrol/gas and diesel-powered vehicles (assumed 20 yr life), power plants (40 year assumed life), and more.  The IEA said if we continue to build fossil fuel cars and plants as we have, by 2017 we would have built enough to bring us over 2 C if operated for their full intended life cycle.  This made the imperative even clearer to make a rapid shift.

In summary… What is the problem? Why act quickly?

  • Fossil-fuel + biofuel air pollution cause 5-7 million premature air pollution deaths/year worldwide. This costs $20-25 trillion/year already, not to mention the human loss and suffering.
  • Global warming due to world emissions will cost ~$25-30 trillion/year by 2050.
  • Increasing fossil energy use increases energy pricesà economic, social, political instability.
  • Drastic problems require immediate solutions.

What can we do to reduce emissions and global warming? Looking at where our emissions are from, we can see the priorities:

  1. Get our electricity production off fossil fuels (shift to renewables)
  2. Shift transport and as much energy use as possible to clean electricity
  3. Efficiency improvements
  4. Everything else

Scientists, leaders, and UNEP say we have just three years to limit turn emissions onto a sharp, long-term decline, which is also why former UNFCCC Chair Christiana Figueres and others are pursuing Mission 2020.  The head of UNEP Erik Solheim & Chief Scientist Jacqueline McGlade reported on the emissions gap, saying:

We must take urgent action. If we don’t, we will mourn the loss of biodiversity and natural resources. We will regret the economic fallout. Most of all, we will grieve over the avoidable human tragedy; the growing numbers of climate refugees hit by hunger, poverty, illness and conflict will be a constant reminder of our failure to deliver…This is our wake-up call…

As Figueres has said: “Right now, 60 million people are displaced worldwide, the highest ever seen in recorded history.” And “we will be seeing 100-300 million displaced in their own area or outside and that will be difficult if not impossible to manage” if we don’t turn around now, with climate change and our use of fossil fuels.  “We’ll be condemning the 1 billion still in extreme poverty to perpetual, extreme poverty. The impacts of climate change will grow exponentially both in intensity and in frequency, and that requires investing very scarce resources into rebuilding very basic, scarce infrastructure that then won’t get to devote that to health, education, and well-being.”  We must get off fossil fuels: “Not only would we avert the worst impacts of climate, we would be able to give energy access to 1.3 billion around the world mostly in extreme poverty, improve health worldwide especially in cities, increase food security and create many new jobs. This is a moral responsibility that we all share. That moral responsibility, how are we going to ensure that it is achieved before it is too late for the most vulnerable? We need to align our moral compass…we need to be clear that fossil fuels kill.”  In contrast, we know that renewable energy brings life, health and employment opportunities, though change is never easy or automatic.  We shouldn’t make it more difficult than it has to be by caving to special interests devoted to private profit.

The necessary shift is completely possible. The cost of wind and solar is now comparable to fossil fuels on a utility scale, and wind and solar is much cheaper when health and other costs are included.  Moreover, solar and wind potential are plentiful.  Electric cars use only one third the energy with zero emissions and a third the maintenance cost.  As Jochen Wermuth has noted, by providing electricity (and stabilization) to the grid, a €20 000 electric car can earn €1 000 a year.  He is performing a study for the Vatican on how it can shift to 100% renewable power and 100% emission-free mobility and said, “Today it is no longer just morally right, it is also cheaper to own an electric car compared to a combustion engine car. The Pope is moving from sharing his views on the world via his encyclical Laudato Si care for our common home to implementing the Laudato Si.”  Looking more broadly at the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals, Wermuth estimated that due to the ever lower cost of renewables and cheap leverage, as little equity as 600 billion euros, leveraged and recycled over 25 years, could suffice to stop climate change and lift 1 billion people out of poverty.

See google doc with this post and climate background graphics, if desired, on the following

Temperature rise tracks global CO2, which has been measured from Mauna Loa since the 1950s. Scientists first predicted and noticed rising CO2 levels with fossil fuel combustion and industrialization, in the 1800s.  As we have been able to look back further, it is even more plain that world and human evolution occurred within a lower band of CO2 concentration in the atmosphere.  People came to flourish this past 8,000 years, when CO2 levels were around 280 ppm nearly that whole time.

Setting the reference point for temperature anomalies relative to 1950-1970, we can see that temperatures have been rising since the mid-1800s.

Other gases produced by developed countries and to feed developed countries (via western style development and agriculture) are also implicated (graph below from USEPA):

In conclusion:

What can we do to reduce emissions and global warming? Looking at where our emissions are from, we can see the priorities are:

  1. Get our electricity production off fossil fuels (shift to renewables)
  2. Shift transport and as much energy use as possible to clean electricity
  3. Efficiency improvements
  4. Everything else

Our top priority is to shift electricity off of fossil fuels and to renewables because this can be done now.  Automobile production can also be shifted off of fossil fuels now. 

If we attend to our other systems of extraction, domination and inequality associated with our current fossil fuel economy at the same time, we can make and have the shifts we need for the dignity of life and well-being.  Dr. Jacobson’s work and analysis of the natural resources and transition pathways for 139 countries (completed ahead of the COP-21 in 2015) found that each country can convert to wind, water, and solar energy by 2050, with considerable cost savings and many benefits, not least avoided climate change.  Efficiencies available with electrical power and more decentralized distribution in some cases can cut usual power demand by an estimated 42.5% while avoiding 4-7 million air pollution deaths per year (~$23 trillion/year) and $27Trillion in annual climate costs.  In addition, each person saves ~$85/year fuel costs and $5,700 annually in health + climate costs by 2050.  Wind, water, and solar energy with storage + demand response management can provide 100% reliability of energy provision at a cost of  ~9.5-12 ¢/kWh and create ~24 million more jobs than are lost by leaving fossil fuels behind.  This will creates distributed power, reducing terrorism/catastrophic risk and energy poverty of up to 4 billion people worldwide up to 2050, while making countries energy independent and reducing international conflict.

For transport, the biggest solutions have to do with switching to EVs and also shared mobility and also improving urban environments for people of all ages to walk and bike.

  • Shift our fleets to electric mobility (and hybrid where necessary < 30%). Incentivize EVs and shared use, via dramatic increase in transit and ride-sharing.  Shared mobility is key to reducing emissions and congestion and increasing access for those who lack the ability to get where they need to go for jobs, health, family or other now. Shifting to shared mobility can massively reduce the number of cars on city streets while maintaining similar service levels as today. They also result in significant reductions of distances travelled, congestion and negative environmental impacts. These door-to-door services also improve access and reduce costs for all users
  • Increase ability, safety, comfort, livability for walking and bicycling (all ages, 8 to 80). Walking, cycling, public transit, and mobility substitutes are resource-efficient: compared with automobile travel they generally have much lower user costs, require less travel and parking space and so reduce road and parking facility costs, consume less fuel, and require less embodied energy(energy used to build vehicles and facilities). Society should be willing to spend at least as much to serve a trip by these modes as it costs to serve an automobile trip, a concept is called least-cost planning.
  • Get price for road space/infrastructure in front of people (daily if possible) in new funding mechanisms to avoid free-riding, especially by people and industries with more resources
  • When AVs become available, cities should restrict to shared use and fleets and limit empty car driving.