There’s no historical ‘roadmap’ for our need to replace coal, gas with green technology

BERGEN, Norway — Cutting back on coal and gas power is key to reaching net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 and the Paris Climate Agreement’s 1.5°C-temperature target. But few studies have focused on history to see how such a sudden and sweeping transition will impact society, especially when it comes to replacing carbon technologies with greener alternatives.

Now, researchers in Scandinavia have examined historical cases in over 100 countries and found that there is no historical road map. Even the most rapid historical cases of fossil fuel decline, which occurred when oil was replaced by coal, gas, or nuclear power for security purposes, do not compare.

Researchers today call for coal and gas to be cut like never before to reach climate targets. The reduction in fossil fuels necessary to prevent temperatures from rising by more than 1.5 degrees Celsius (34.7 degrees Fahrenheit) ​this century is unprecedented.

“This is the first study that systematically analyzed historical cases of decline in fossil fuel use in individual countries over the last 60 years and around the world. 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,” says corresponding author Jessica Jewell, a professor at the University of Bergen in Norway, in a statement.

The researchers identified 147 episodes within a sample of 105 countries between 1960 and 2018 during which coal, oil, or natural gas use declined faster than five percent over a decade. They focused on fast rates of fossil fuel decline in larger countries, where significant technological shifts or policy efforts were likely to be required. These episodes were then compared with climate mitigation scenarios using a tool called “feasibility space.”

“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 Jewell. “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.”

Typically, rapid declines in fossil fuels occur after advances in competing technologies combined with a strong motivation to change energy systems and effective government institutions to implement the changes. “We were less surprised, but still somewhat impressed, by how fast the use of coal must decline in the future to reach climate targets,” Jewell adds.

Of all the fossil fuels, coal would need to decline the most rapidly to meet climate targets, particularly in Asia and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) regions, where coal is still widely used. But nearly all scenarios for the decline of coal in Asia to meet the climate targets have very few historical precedents or were unprecedented, researchers say.

The same was true of scenarios for coal decline in the 38 OECD countries and half the scenarios for cutting gas use in the Middle East or Africa. Only where oil was replaced by coal, gas, or nuclear power in response to energy security concerns did some scenarios resemble The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) models.

“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.

The findings are published in the journal One Earth.

South West News Writer Tom Campbell contributed to this report.