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 is likely to require a drop in coal and gas-fired electricity consumption at rates unprecedented for a large country, a analysis of decadal episodes of fossil fuel decline in 105 countries between 1960 and 2018 shows. In addition, the results, published on October 22 in the journal A land, suggest that the fastest historical cases of fossil fuel decline occurred when petroleum 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 to achieve the goal of zero net greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, which is necessary to prevent global average temperatures from exceeding 1.5 ° C this century. However, few studies have examined the historical precedent for such a sudden and sweeping transition, especially 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 around the world,” said Jessica Jewell, associate professor in Transitions energy at Chalmers University in Sweden, professor at the University of Bergen in Norway, and the corresponding author of the study. “Previous studies have sometimes looked at the world as a whole but failed to find such cases because globally, fossil fuel use has consistently increased over time.”
“We also looked at recent political commitments to phase out coal power altogether, which some 30 countries have made as part of the Powering Past Coal Alliance. We found that these commitments are not aimed at a faster coal decline. than what has happened historically, ”adds Jewell. “In other words, they are basically planning 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 colleagues, Vadim Vinichenko, post-doctoral researcher at Chalmers and Aleh Cherp, professor at the University of Europe power plant in Austria and Lund A Swedish university identified 147 episodes in a sample of 105 countries between 1960 and 2018 in which the consumption of coal, oil or natural gas fell faster 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 expected to take place in regions of continental size.
Jewell and his colleagues focused the investigation on cases with rapid rates of decline in fossil fuels in large countries, which indicate significant technological change or policy efforts, and monitored for the size of the energy sector, the growth in demand for electricity and the type of energy with which the declining fossil fuel has been substituted. They compared these cases of historic fossil fuel decline to climate change mitigation scenarios using a tool called a ‘feasibility space’, which identifies combinations of conditions that make climate action achievable in contexts. individuals.
“We were surprised to find that the use of certain fossil fuels, especially petroleum, actually declined quite rapidly in the 1970s and 1980s in Western Europe and other industrialized countries like Japan,” says Jewell. . “This is not the period typically associated with energy transitions, but we have come to believe that important lessons can be learned from it.” The rapid decline of fossils historically required advances in competing technologies, a 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 the rate at which coal use must decrease 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, especially in Asia and in OECD regions where coal use is concentrated.
About half of the IPCC’s 1.5 ° C-compatible scenarios envision a faster coal decline in Asia than in any of these cases. The remaining scenarios, as well as many scenarios of coal and gas decline in other regions, have precedents only in which oil has been replaced by coal, gas or nuclear power in response to threats. energy security in small electricity markets. Achieving the 1.5 ° C target requires finding mechanisms for fossil fuel decline that extend far beyond historical experience or current promises.
The authors found that almost all scenarios of coal decline in Asia in accordance with the goals of the Paris Agreement would be historically unprecedented or have few precedents. More than half of the scenarios envisaged for the decline of coal in OECD countries and more than half of the scenarios for reducing gas consumption in reforming economies, the Middle East or Africa would also be without precedent 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 achieved nationwide,” Jewell said.
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Jessica Jewell, Historical Precedents and Feasibility of the Rapid Decline of Coal and Gas Required for the 1.5 ° C Target, A land (2021). DOI: 10.1016 / j.oneear.2021.09.012. www.cell.com/one-earth/fulltex… 2590-3322 (21) 00534-0
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