The Transition from Fossil Fuels to Clean Energy Might Happen Faster Than You Think

Most people think the path to clean energy for the world will be long, arduous, and full of speed bumps – or, shall we say, oil slicks. In order to transition quickly enough to prevent the average global temperature from rising by more than two degrees Celsius, we need to do much more than international leaders committed to at the recent Paris climate talks – and even those goals were ambitious.

However, Carl Pope, former executive director of the Sierra Club, believes the transition from fossil fuels to clean energy will happen much faster than most people think. “Very small changes in the consumption of fossil fuels drive very disruptive changes in the value of stocks, the size of companies, and fuel prices,” Pope said in a video conversation less than a week after the Paris accord was signed. Take the coal industry, for example. Although the amount of coal the world consumes has dipped only slightly over the last five years, the capital value of the world’s coal industry has dropped by 94 percent, Pope said. Most U.S. coal producers have gone into bankruptcy or been de-listed from the New York Stock Exchange.

Many small changes in the energy markets contributed to the collapse: natural gas became much cheaper and more abundant due to new fracking techniques, renewable energies like solar and wind started competing seriously with the fossil fuel industry on price, and Environmental Protection Agency regulations kept adding to the cost of doing business. The combination of these market forces led to a relatively quick collapse.

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Another encouraging sign suggesting the potential for rapid change is the burgeoning divestment movement. According to Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org, portfolios worth $3.4 trillion have begun to divest from fossil fuel. As investors increasingly see fossil fuels as a problematic investment and clean energy as the way of the future, the flow of capital will help speed this transition.

McKibben hopes that his work with 350.org will help shift the cultural zeitgeist around climate change, similar to how the LGBT movement transformed the zeitgeist around same-sex marriage. And there are indications that this is happening: Lena Moffitt, director of the Dirty Fuels Campaign at the Sierra Club, helped champion, and ultimately won, the battle to defeat the Keystone Pipeline. “It was very encouraging to see the biggest economy in the world say no to an infrastructure project because of its potential impact on climate change,” said Moffitt. “Increasingly, we are going to have to demand that our leaders respond to the science, which is telling us that the vast majority of fossil fuels are going to have to stay in the ground.”

According to McKibben, recent polling data indicates that 60 percent of Republicans want to see action on climate change. “Reasonable people who aren’t bought off are beginning to come on board on this,” said McKibben. It’s important to bring new audiences into the climate change conversation to continue moving these numbers in the right direction. Roger Sorkin, director and producer of the film “The Burden: Fossil Fuel, the Military, and National Security” believes that presenting climate change as both a security threat and an economic opportunity will help the messages of the environmental movement reach a broader range of people. It’s important to meet people where they are, Sorkin said, and changing the framework of the conversation may be part of shifting the zeitgeist and motivating more Americans to push for greater action.

The fossil fuel industry isn’t going to go down without a fight. “The fossil fuel industry is the biggest industry in the world, and it has basically purchased one of our political parties and terrified the other,” said McKibben.

But while the fossil fuel-supporting Koch brothers are extremely rich and powerful, they’re also vulnerable. “That’s why the Koch brothers will spend $900 million in this year’s election,” said McKibben. “They now have to if they’re going to continue to dominate our political lives. They have it to spend. We have to figure out how to match it with the currencies that we can bring, which are the currencies of movement: passion, spirit, and creativity.”

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While grassroots movements and filmmakers are rallying citizens, solar engineers are chipping away at the power of the fossil fuel industry. Every month, McKibben says, the cost of solar panels drops 2 percent. According to McKibben, the longer we can keep the fossil fuel industry in check, the better our chances of realizing a sustainable, clean energy future.

Yet despite the understandable inclination to push for as much progress in as little time as humanly possible, it’s important to consider the impacts this rushed transition might have on oil-exporting countries. “From a geopolitical perspective, if we were to have a really rapid transition, assuming everyone is better off from a rapid transition is probably a little Pollyanna-ish,” said Sarah Ladislaw, director of the Energy & National Security Program at Center for Strategic & International Studies.

Pope agreed that the rushed transition from fossil fuels to clean energy will be a “rough ride,” one that will require an overhaul of much of the status quo: We may have to acknowledge the indispensability of China as a world power, for example, or rework post-WWII finance regulations that restrict the flow of private capital to clean energy endeavors in the developing world.

“I believe the lesson of Paris is we need to prepare, act in advance, and act collectively, so that as we make a rapid transition from fossil fuels to clean energy – and I think it will be very rapid,” said Pope, “and as we cope with a suddenly destabilized climate, we do so in a way that creates global solidarity.”