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 UN 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's 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.
- 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 large 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.
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 (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.
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.
What’s next (maybe): 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.
Go deeper: This full column and last week's edition explore what makes this such a uniquely difficult problem.