Historical analysis finds no precedent for the rate of decline in coal and gas power needed to limit climate change to 1.5°C

Limiting climate change to the 1.5°C target set by the Paris Climate Agreement will likely require coal and gas use to drop at unprecedented rates for a large country, episode analysis decadal years of fossil fuel decline in 105 countries between 1960 and 2018 shows. Additionally, the findings, published Oct. 22 in the journal A landsuggest that the fastest historic instances of fossil fuel decline occurred when oil was replaced by coal, gas, or nuclear power in response to energy security threats of the 1970s and 1980s.

Decarbonizing the energy sector is a particularly important strategy for reaching the goal of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, necessary to prevent global average temperatures from rising above 1.5°C over the next this century. However, few studies have investigated the historical precedent for such a sudden and drastic transition, particularly the decline in carbon-intensive technologies that must accompany the widespread adoption of greener technologies.

“This is the first study that has systematically analyzed historical cases of declining fossil fuel use in individual countries over the past 60 years and globally,” says Jessica Jewell (@jessicadjewell), professor associate in energy transitions at Chalmers University in Sweden. , professor at the University of Bergen in Norway, and corresponding author of the study. “Previous studies have sometimes looked at the world as a whole but have failed to find such cases because globally, the use of fossil fuels has always increased over time.”

“We also studied recent political pledges to phase out coal power altogether, which some 30 countries have made under the Powering Past Coal Alliance. We found that these pledges are not aimed at a faster coal decline than has happened historically,” adds Jewell. “In other words, they’re largely planning to just business as usual.”

To determine whether periods of historic fossil fuel decline are similar to the scenarios needed to reach the Paris target, Jewell and his colleagues, Vadim Vinichenko, postdoctoral researcher at Chalmers and Aleh Cherp, professor at Central European University in Austria and Lund A Swedish university identified 147 episodes in a sample of 105 countries between 1960 and 2018 during which the consumption of coal, oil or natural gas fell by more than 5% over a decade. The rapid decline in fossil fuel use has historically been limited to small countries, such as Denmark, but such cases are less relevant to climate scenarios, where the decline is projected to take place in continental-sized regions.

Jewell and his colleagues focused the investigation on cases of rapid rates of fossil fuel decline in large countries, which indicate significant technological change or policy efforts, and monitored the size of the energy sector, the growth electricity demand and the type of energy with which the declining fossil fuel has been replaced. They compared these cases of historic fossil fuel decline to climate mitigation scenarios using a tool called the “feasibility space,” which identifies combinations of conditions that make climate action feasible in particular contexts. .

“We were surprised to find that the use of some fossil fuels, particularly oil, actually declined quite rapidly in the 1970s and 1980s in Western Europe and other industrialized countries like Japan,” says Jewell. . “This is not the time frame that is typically associated with energy transitions, but we have come to believe that important lessons can be learned from it.” Rapid fossil decline historically required advances in competing technologies, strong motivation to change energy systems (e.g. to avoid threats to energy security), and effective government institutions to implement the required changes.

“We were less surprised, but still somewhat impressed, by how quickly coal use must decline in the future to meet climate goals,” she adds, noting that, of all fossil fuels , coal is expected to decline fastest to meet climate targets, particularly in Asia and OECD regions where coal use is concentrated.

About half of the IPCC’s 1.5°C-compatible scenarios predict a faster coal decline in Asia than all of these. The remaining scenarios, as well as many coal and gas decline scenarios in other regions, have precedents only in which oil has been replaced by coal, gas or nuclear power in response to threats. to energy security in small electricity markets. Reaching the 1.5°C target requires finding mechanisms for fossil fuel decline that go far beyond historical experience or current promise.

The authors found that almost all scenarios of coal decline in Asia in line with the goals of the Paris Agreement would be historically unprecedented or have few precedents. More than half of the scenarios considered for the decline of coal in OECD countries and more than half of the scenarios for reduced gas consumption in reforming economies, the Middle East or Africa would also be unprecedented. or would also have rare precedents.

“This signals both a huge challenge to see through such a rapid decline in fossil fuels and the need to learn from history when rapid declines have been reached nationwide,” Jewell said.

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Patrick F. Williams