Can history teach us how to reduce fossil reliance?
Limiting climate change to the 1.5°C target set by the Paris Climate Agreement will likely require coal and gas power use to decline at rates that are unprecedented for any large country, an analysis of decadal episodes of fossil fuel decline in 105 countries between 1960 and 2018 shows. The researchers also identified factors that has facitilitated rapid decline in fossil fuel use: competing technologies, strong motivation to change energy sources, and effective government institutions.
“Prior studies sometimes looked at the world as a whole but failed to find such cases, because on the global level the use of fossil fuels has always grown over time. So, we were surprised to find that the use of some fossil fuels, particularly oil, actually declined quite rapidly in the 1970s and the 1980s in Western Europe and other industrialized countries like Japan,” says Jessica Jewell, associate professor in energy transitions at Chalmers University in Sweden, and professor at the University of Bergen in Norway, and the corresponding author of the study.
“This is not the time period that is typically associated with energy transitions, but we came to believe that some important lessons can be drawn from there,” says Jessica.
To explore whether any periods of historical fossil fuel decline are similar to scenarios needed to achieve the Paris target, Jewell and her colleagues, Vadim Vinichenko, a post-doctoral researcher at Chalmers and Aleh Cherp, a professor at Central European University in Austria and Lund University in Sweden, identified 147 episodes within a sample of 105 countries between 1960 and 2018 in which coal, oil, or natural gas use declined faster than 5 per cent over a decade.
The authors found that nearly all scenarios for the decline of coal in Asia in line with Paris Agreement’s goals would be historically unprecedented or have rare precedents. Over half of scenarios envisioned for coal decline in OECD countries and over half of scenarios for cutting gas use in reforming economies, the Middle East, or Africa would also be unprecedented or have rare precedents as well.
Historically, when fossil fuel use has declined rapidly in larger countries, to an extent corresponding to the necessary reduction according to the climate scenarios, it has required advances in competing technologies, effective government institutions to implement the required changes, and strong motivation to change energy systems, for instance to avoid energy security threats.
“This signals both an enormous challenge of seeing through such rapid decline of fossil fuels and the need to learn from historical lessons when rapid declines were achieved on the national scale,” says Jewell.