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Should we stop using fossil fuels altogether?

Should we stop using fossil fuels altogether?

More than four fifths of the world’s energy still comes from coal, oil and gas. The challenge is to phase them out as demand goes on rising

This is a practical question. It’s about transport, heating, cooking, making things and powering the digital economy. But it’s also a moral and political question, and Extinction Rebellion says it’s an existential one too.

Should we stop using fossil fuels altogether? The easy answer has to be yes. The science of anthropogenic global warming is now well understood. Fossil fuels are driving at least three quarters of it (agriculture and deforestation are also big carbon emitters). The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says we have 11 years to slow it down. And as climate change accelerates, especially near the poles, evidence mounts that the panel’s projections so far have been conservative rather than alarmist.

Natalie, former leader of the Green Party, took “yes” as her starting point and said we should celebrate: she said stopping using fossil fuels is doable as well as vital.

But how? At current rates of growth of demand enough extra energy will have to be found by 2030 to power the equivalent of another China, plus another India, plus another Africa. Looking further ahead, if we don’t cut back on energy use per head, Dieter’s research shows that demand will grow 16-fold by the end of the century as populations, economies and digitisation all expand.


If humans had already shown the ability and the will to power the planet cleanly by 2019, the challenge might be a simple one of scaling up. But we haven’t. Currently about 85 per cent of global primary energy demand is met by fossil fuels, 4 per cent by wind and solar, and the rest by hydro and nuclear. Renewables are growing faster than ever, but from a low base.

As BP’s Kathrina noted, we are not on track to meet the Paris climate targets. That goes for us as a country, species, planet and agglomeration of human groupings. BP is one. It has tried to move “beyond petroleum” in the past, incurring heavy losses. With hindsight, that strategy depended on some sort of carbon pricing mechanism across the energy sector – which didn’t materialise. The need to decarbonise oil and gas is increasingly acute and will have to be met with carbon capture and other approaches to limiting carbon’s impact. In the meantime the company intends to meet energy demand and thrive.

Ed, a member, was doubtful about decarbonisation. He pointed out that energy companies generally have a poor record on that front. There was no argument in the room that they all continue to invest overwhelmingly in oil and gas; nor that this needs to change, although as Dieter pointed out, every western oil major could switch out of oil entirely and 90 per cent of the world’s output – controlled by state-run firms like Saudi Aramco and Mexico’s Pemex – would be unaffected and as dirty as ever.

So the question remained: how? The imperative to ditch fossil fuels is there, but what about the road map? Digby proposed assigning proper value to the social and environmental cost of goods and services. Katie proposed carbon labelling. Both feel like the kinds of tips of icebergs we’ll be glad to see once the underlying problem has been solved. Dieter’s approach to that is via technology and a focus on limiting carbon consumption by price – with the onus on consumers to pay it. Natalie said she couldn’t disagree more: what’s needed is “system change” that puts the onus on government, business and regulation. James worried aloud about the gulf between them. I saw common ground. Both seem to agree we need to change our relationship with energy. Plus, if a technological revolution coupled with a broadly enforced and endorsed price on carbon isn’t system change, what is?

What I do worry about is getting so stuck on climate change problems that solutions – even talking about solutions – feels always just out of sight. This ThinkIn felt different; a reality check but not a despairing one. Many thanks to all involved.

To do:

  • We’re inviting members who want to keep a carbon diary to get in touch by emailing Imy Harper at imy@tortoisemedia.com.
  • We’ll also be keeping a close eye on the Exxon trial, now starting in New York, on charges of misleading investors on climate change.

Also: you can listen to Dieter’s brilliant if sobering Net Zero lectures here.