Aug 26, 2019 - Energy & Environment
Column / Harder Line

Why climate change is so hard to tackle: Our stubborn energy system

Illustration of a hand doing a toasting with a barrel of oil

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

To adequately address climate change on the level scientists say we must, the world would need to slash its use of oil, natural gas and coal within 30 years, a Herculean task given our deep dependence.

Driving the news: Democrats on the presidential campaign trail and international leaders preparing for a United Nations summit next month say urgent action is needed, but few actually have viable plans for how and when to cut our fossil-fuel use.

The big picture: In 1987, 81% of our world’s energy consumption came from oil, natural gas and coal. Thirty years later, it is still 81% — despite the incredible increase in wind and solar energy, according to the International Energy Agency.

Fossil fuels’ staying power

Global fossil-fuel companies have built powerful political operations to lobby governments to maintain subsidies and oppose big climate policy.

  • This is starting to change among some oil companies, but it’s an uneven shift, and it's not (yet) fundamentally changing the system they helped build.

But a lot more is driving fossil fuels’ dominance than just corporate influence on government. Oil, natural gas and coal provide immense benefits to society — even though they also have immense environmental costs.

  • The chemical makeup of the fuels make them especially good at a lot of things, including industrial processes like making plastics. Renewables or other resources cannot easily replace that (even though big brands, like Legos, are trying).
  • "Some sectors, such as transportation and petrochemicals [plastics], almost completely rely on one single fuel, in this case oil,” said Fatih Birol, IEA executive director. Nonetheless, Birol said fossil-fuel consumption subsidies that totaled $400 billion in 2018 are providing an “unfair advantage” to those fuels.

Our dependence on fossil fuels is often likened to that of cigarette smoking, but the analogy doesn’t hold up.

  • Smoking is an unhealthy habit some people choose to engage in, and if they choose, they can try to kick that addiction without changing their life.
  • Fossil fuels are the foundation of our global economy, and it’s nearly impossible to go about our lives without using them in some form.

More addition, less transition

In the world of energy and climate change, people talk about the “energy transition,” the concept that we are moving from fossil fuels to renewable energy. But for now and the next few decades, it’s more of an energy addition.

  • Renewable electricity (which is the primary use for wind and solar) is often being added on top of instead of in lieu of fossil fuels, particularly in Asia’s rapidly growing economies.
  • Our energy system, particularly electricity, is built on multi-billion dollar infrastructure investments designed to last decades. Replacing them is like changing direction on a jetliner, not a jet ski.
  • Because of this dynamic and because our global energy demand keeps rising, our emissions keep growing despite the skyrocketing use of wind and solar energy.

Flashback: History shows that energy transitions take many decades and overlap, as Reuters analyst John Kemp wrote in a must-read column late last year.

  • “The United States was still using more fuel wood in the 1910s than it had in the 1840s — even though wood had been clearly overtaken by coal and to a lesser extent petroleum as an energy source.”

Consumer demand vs. expectation

More people around the world say they’re worried about climate change — but that concern is not translating into a willingness to pay more for energy or vote for candidates who support aggressive action.

  • We saw that happen in this spring’s Australian national elections, French protests over gasoline taxes and a Washington state carbon tax ballot initiative failure in 2018, as I detailed in this story from May.
  • One notable exception: Europe’s parliamentary elections this spring saw elections of pro-environmental candidates.

A common theme in these examples is how passively we consume energy. That sets this sector apart from others and makes change more elusive because the connection with consumers is less acute.

  • Unlike, say, Apple and Coca Cola, most energy companies are selling products we engage with passively. We expect the pumps at the gas station to pump gasoline and the lights to come on when we flip the switch, but we don’t actually think about it (unless the lights don’t come on or if there’s no gas pumping).
  • On the other hand, we think a lot about how we engage with our phones and whether to drink a Diet Coke or sparkling water.

What’s (maybe) next: If a Democrat wins the White House in 2020, America will likely be a political and technical test case for policies drastically and swiftly reducing our deep fossil-fuel dependence. That's because most of the Democratic candidates are calling for such a move, with Sen. Bernie Sanders proposing the most aggressive plan just last week.

Go deeper: Why climate change is so hard to tackle: the global problem

Go deeper