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 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.”
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?
“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 3½ days.
The United States’ strategic petroleum reserve would last the country just 17 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.
“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 percent. Countries will also need to push rapid expansion of electric trucks and further development of new technologies like carbon capture and hydrogen.
The IEA predicts that the world will have to triple renewable energy capacity in just seven years to cut fossil fuel demand by 20 percent.
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.
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
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.
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 [fossil fuel] leasing will make the world more dangerous and less prosperous,”
“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.”
More on climate change
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