How Do We Get the World Off Fossil Fuels Quickly and Fairly? | TED Countdown Dilemma Series
Catherine Abreu: We know with certainty that fossil fuels need to be phased out. There's really no question in the science at this point. Tessa Khan: The arguments for transitioning away from fossil fuels at speed have never been more compelling. I think the responsibilities of governments to accelerate that transition have never been so acute. Laurence Tubiana: It has to be quite radical. It could have been done slowly.
But now we are running against time, and the climate impacts are now not for tomorrow. It's for today. Hisham Mundol: The role of fossil fuels between now and 2050 is that of a necessary evil. Hongqiao Liu: So we have a very complicated relationship with fossil fuels at the moment.
It's like your ex-partner, you want to get rid of them, but they stick around. Rebekah Shirley: In Africa, for instance, where I live, it's a bit more complicated. Vijaya Ramachandran: I don't think it's fair to poor countries to say you have to be renewable only, when the rich countries are doubling down on oil, coal and gas. HL: We need to debate.
We need we need that exchange. We need to understand each other's views and to start with the concept of the dilemma that we’re facing. Zoë Knight: In my mind, the biggest obstacle is the speed of collaboration. We speak at cross-purposes with each other. Mary Robinson: We've got to deal with this much more quickly than we're doing. How do we raise the temperature? How do we increase the energy for action, the passion for action, the heartfelt need for action which will move us? [TED Countdown] [Dilemma Series] [How do we move from fossil fuels to clean energy quickly and fairly?] Lindsay Levin: We're standing at a crucial crossroads in history.
We live in a world where our energy system is overwhelmingly dependent on burning fossil fuels. What are the viable pathways to a clean and safe future, and how do we collectively navigate this transition? I'm Lindsay Levin, co-founder of Countdown, and this is the second installment of our Dilemma Series. We know that credible people, including many of you, disagree in some pretty fundamental ways on this topic, the core of the climate challenge. Recently at the Barbican Centre in London, we brought together experts, activists and leading voices in the climate space to speak, listen and work together as we figure out how to make progress despite our differences. While the need to get off fossil fuels is straightforward and urgent, the pathway to doing it equitably is anything but.
Here's TED science curator David Biello to frame the basic ideas behind this dilemma. David Biello: Today, more than 80 percent of modern energy comes from burning fossil fuels. That means more than 40 billion metric tons, that's 40 gigatons, of CO2 gets dumped in the air each year. And that number is growing.
At the same time, hundreds of millions of people live with limited or no access to modern energy at all. That means they have contributed almost nothing to the greenhouse gas pollution causing the climate crisis. So do we stop fossil fuel exploration and production entirely? Do we encourage it for certain communities but not others? And if so, where? How do we actually get renewables to scale and how do we pay for it all? These questions are incredibly complex, but the takeaway is clear. We need to eliminate fossil fuels and use what we must to ensure that everyone benefits.
Let's start with some facts and figures about where we are today. Here's Adair Turner. Adair Turner: The International Panel on Climate Change estimated in 2018 that if we are to have even a 50-percent chance of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees centigrade, we cannot emit more than 500 gigatons of CO2 between 2020 and 2050. But actually, we're two years into that 30-year period. We've been running at 40 gigatons per year, so we've only got 420 gigatons left.
That 420 gigatons would be emitted if we burnt 70 billion tons of coal plus 65 trillion cubic meters of gas plus 350 billion barrels of oil. But at the current rate we will have burnt all of that in 12 years. We have got to find a way of leaving the vast majority of coal, oil and gas in the ground, even if it is in someone's interest to dig it or drill it up.
So what should we do? In one area, the answer is clear. Renewable is now a cheaper way to produce electricity than coal in almost all countries of the world, so we should build no more coal electricity plants, no more coal mines. And we should not invest anything in the extension of existing coal mines. For gas and oil, it is a bit trickier. International Energy Agency suggests a distinction.
It says that we should invest nothing in exploration for or production from new oil and gas fields, but that it’s OK to invest something to maintain production from existing fields. But there are some people who would challenge the morality of that distinction, because if there's an absolute limit to how much gas we can safely burn, it's not clear that squeezing a little bit more out of the North Sea is more acceptable than developing a new gas field in an African country whose past cumulative per capita emissions have been a tiny fraction of the UK's. We now have the technologies to dramatically reduce the demand for fossil fuels, and we should deploy them as rapidly as possible.
That means ensuring that electricity systems in every developed country get to zero emissions by 2035 at the very latest and ideally earlier, with no coal and only a very, very small role for unabated gas. We should be aiming to reduce coal demand 90 percent by 2050, oil demand at least 75 percent and gas demand by well over 50 percent. And we are running out of time to do it fast enough. LL: Those are some big reduction targets, and we need to meet them.
But as we move there, we'll still be using some fossil fuels to meet energy demands. How do we do that while accelerating our transition to renewables? Some people think we can work with the fossil fuel industry and want to pressure it to do better. Others propose more radical departures. Here are a few opinions on this issue, starting with Jérôme Schmitt, a former oil industry executive who is now a senior fellow at the Columbia Center on Sustainable Investment. Jérôme Schmitt: I'm not aware of any net-zero scenario compliant with 1.5 degree or two degree
that does not involve even a little bit of fossil fuel by 2040 or 2050, especially for the developing part of the world. Therefore, some people will need to have an all-in understanding of the energy system and be able to manage the complexity of producing and supplying to customers and to countries clean energy on one side and less and less fossil fuel on the other side and concentrate the fossil fuel supply and demand on the absolute necessary means and usage and increase progressively the shift from one to the other. Those who have the competency today to manage this complexity and the balance sheet is still the oil and gas industry, whether we like it or not.
So I would take the oil and gas industry as an opportunity to go faster, to make it right better than we would do it without them. But if it doesn't prove possible because the oil and gas industry doesn't shift and doesn't adapt, we must do without. Ramez Naam: Oil and gas companies have to realize -- they don't always, but they really should realize -- the writing is on the wall.
We're spending close to twice as much on clean energy as we are on fossil fuel infrastructure already, and that gap is just going to widen and widen. So I think if we can pivot those companies, that industry, into working on a clean future, it's a good thing. But we shouldn't have illusions that it's going to happen by itself. The pivot that has happened has been because companies have seen that the future is clean. And so a combination of continuing to push on policy, on citizen advocacy and on driving for the technologies that disrupt fossil fuels is what will cause those large, entrenched fossil fuel companies to pivot towards the clean future. Tzeporah Berman: We're living the last gasp of the fossil fuel industry, and they're doing everything they can to weaken climate policy and hold on to the market because they know renewables are cheaper.
MR: There was a great opportunity to move with all the skills that the fossil fuel industry has built up over the years, convert over to clean energy. That would have been a wonderful moment. If that had happened, things would be very different. We don’t have the time now to get into a long, transition-y kind of discourse, which is what most of them seem to want. They lack the urgency of now in their talk.
DB: As you can see, there's a lot of skepticism about the fossil fuel industry based on its history of deception. Here's well-known climate activist Luisa Neubauer, urging us not to believe everything we hear. Luisa Neubauer: People, for instance, call the climate crisis manmade.
And while there were indeed humans behind it, it's much less manmade and much more fossil-fuel-made. It's made possible by the exploitation of coal, oil and gas and the profit-driven economic systems behind it. Calling the climate crisis manmade implies it's an accident of human nature, whereas it's actually a relatively small group of people and just a few places around the world: the fossil fuel industries, their marketing and their political supporters. The fossil fuel industry itself is also a powerhouse of fairy tales. Fifty years ago, they knew that their business would lead us into a climate disaster. They denied their own climate science that they did themselves, and by that, they stole our very first historic chance to act from us.
So now, for many lives, it's already too late. And this time they present themselves as part of the solution. They call it transition.
They promise innovation, they speak of green growth. And it sounds wonderful. It is powerful, too. I would like to believe that, too. But I cannot.
We do not have time for any more delay. So whoever tells us that they will just need some more time, does not understand the very basic logic of the crisis we are in. Back in Hamburg, when I was in school, we could get 90 minutes to finish a math exam. The fossil fuel industry is, in a way, taking that very exam right now.
But instead of 90 minutes, they tell us they will finish in nine years. Back in school, that attitude would have gotten me failing my assignments. If fossil fuel industries don't listen when people and science tell them to get out of fossil fuels, they should not be listened to when they tell us more fairy tales about wanting to be part of the solution.
If fossil fuel industries get to make the rules about the transition we so desperately need, we will not get that transition. LL: The question of whether there should be any new expansion of fossil fuels is hotly contested, and there are passionate points of view on both sides. With a powerful perspective on the injustice of banning fossil fuels in developing countries, here's economist Vijaya Ramachandran. VR: The average Nigerian consumes about 133 kilowatt hours of electricity a year. What the average American consumes in four days. In Nepal, that number is 231 kilowatt hours.
In Haiti, it's only 37. So what does all of this mean for real people? It means that they might have a few lights at home or a small fan, but no refrigerator, no water heater, no safe cookstove. It means that poor people stay poor.
Now let's look at climate change. Poor people did not create the carbon emissions that have caused climate change. The 64 poorest countries in the world account for less than five percent of annual carbon emissions. Even India, often perceived as a climate villain, adds about seven percent. Poor people are not to blame. Germany's coal plants emit four times more carbon than Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Lao and Bangladesh combined.
Yes, energy, poverty and climate change are intertwined, but not in the way most people think. Most people think that poor countries need to moderate their energy use to address climate change. The reality for poor people in these countries is that they need a lot more energy to adapt to climate change.
As natural disasters get worse, they will need more concrete and steel to build resilient homes and schools and roads. As temperatures rise, they'll need air conditioning and cold storage for food and medicines. As droughts become more common, they'll need fertilizer, pumped irrigation, desalination.
All of these responses to climate change are going to require a lot more energy. So the good news is that we don't need to fear this high-energy future for poor people. All of this energy that they will likely need will come from low-carbon sources to a great extent.
The abundance of wind, solar, geothermal and hydropower in Africa and Asia means that a lot of the energy that we are going to see will not likely increase carbon emissions very much. So how can the US and Europe be smarter about ending energy poverty and addressing climate change? First of all, this rich-world hypocrisy of more fossil fuels for me, but not for thee, must end. Governments in poor countries must be able to pursue a range of energy sources.
Renewables will likely be the lion's share, but there will be some fossil fuels in the mix. Natural gas, for example, is abundant in Africa. Natural gas has powered the energy transition in the United States. Natural gas can fuel power plants. It is one of the best feedstocks for producing fertilizer, and it is one of the safer and cleaner cooking fuels for women in poor countries.
Renewables can be paired with natural gas to increase the share of low-carbon energy sources. No country, not the US, not the UK, not in Europe, not China, has developed without fossil fuels. The United States has recently passed historically large investments in clean energy, but also in some fossil fuels, taking a very practical approach to its domestic energy transition. The United States and other rich countries should take that same practical approach when it comes to funding energy projects in poor countries. Let's not impose unnecessary and unjust restrictions on those who are least responsible for climate change. LL: If the lion's share of new energy production in the developing world will be renewables, a lot of new financing is going to be needed.
Here's Rebekah Shirley of the World Resources Institute on why that's not happening yet. RS: Africa is perhaps the continent that needs least convincing about the clean energy opportunity for health, livelihoods and economy. As the fastest-growing, yet least electrified continent on the globe, most in need of power systems that can help fortify against the onslaught of climate shocks with both abundant fossil and renewable energy resources to build them, Africa's energy transitions and how to dissuade the use of fossil fuels have become an intense international debate. Many sub-Saharan African countries already rely on low-carbon resources. Kenya, where I live, generates 90 percent of its power from renewables like geothermal and hydropower.
Even in West Africa, where renewable shares tend to be lower, countries like Ghana generate over a third of their power from renewable energy resources. And countries like Namibia are at the forefront of innovation on clean fuels like green hydrogen. Couple all of that with housing one of the world's largest carbon sinks, the Congo Basin, and sub-Saharan Africa is consistently recognized as pulling more than its fair share of the global decarbonization effort.
So if the need is urgent and if the resources are bountiful, then why are we still so far away from this clean-energy future for Africa? And what I've learned is that though the world loves to remind Africa about its vast clean-energy potential, the financial flows to deliver that potential remain troublingly scarce. Projects and businesses incur a number of hidden compounding costs and premiums. Like the risk perception premium. Or the "paying back your US dollar loan in a constantly depreciating local currency" premium. Or the "expected to deliver conventionally high rates of return while raising your revenues from customers that earn less than a dollar a day" premium. So international finance markets are not appetized, and financial flows here remain a trickle despite a pipeline of ready projects.
In fact, though 17 percent of the global population and almost 90 percent of those still without access to basic energy, today Africa accounts for a mere two percent of global clean-energy finance. From this perspective, we can see a key missing ingredient: international cooperation to deliver the finance flows that Africa sorely needs. Because there’s so much potential waiting right at the cusp. If local enterprise had access to long-term, low-cost financing, like their counterparts in other regions of the world can simply take for granted, then Africa's clean-energy future would build itself.
HM: A lot of renewables technology already exists. The finance flows, especially to, you know, lower-emission countries don't exist. These are the countries that need to grow and growth needs energy. That energy does not have to come from fossil fuels.
CA: We often speak with the acceptance of this tautology that no country has ever developed without the use of fossil fuels. But that's not the whole truth, right? The whole truth is that no country has developed without the use of fossil fuels yet. LT: You have to really invest in the future of these low-income countries. And access to energy, really looking at the poorest households in all the region is really an important thing.
If not, the transition will always appear very unfair. MR: The World Bank hasn't been doing enough to provide that more concessional finance that brings in private-sector financing and that, you know, really looks at what are the projects that are ready for investment and takes risks because it's really important to have a sense that Africa is part of the clean energy going forward. LL: Global finance isn't flowing at scale where it's needed most.
How do we change that? Here's Zoë Knight of the HSBC Center for Sustainable Finance to explain two major roles that banks could play. ZK: So the most immediate, pressing task that we have is to finance the transition, right? And banks are mission-critical to making that happen. And the reason for that is because we have two very powerful levers.
The first is really to take environmental impact into account in the financing decisions that we take, and we're working on that. And the second is to really actively engage with the governments that we finance, the state-owned corporates that we finance and really work through how they can deliver their transition plan. So if we think about the next 10 to 15 years, the industrial landscape is going to look very different than it does from today, particularly in the case of energy. And we know that that's taking trillions of investment to make the shift.
We need a trillion per year by the end of the decade to have half a semblance of being on track for net zero. And let me be clear, one of the things that the financial system absolutely has to do is enable a science-aligned phase down of the financing of fossil fuels. We have to do that.
But equally, we need to channel the capital that is being generated from the oil and gas industry for good purpose because we need the know-how of the sector and we need to make capital move in a way that's necessary. So think about this. The International Monetary Fund has just estimated that the Middle East oil and gas companies will generate an incremental 1.3 trillion [dollars] in revenues over the next four years.
The banks and financiers can help move that money into renewables in a way that will make us achieve the net-zero ambition much, much faster. DB: In any discussion on this topic, it's easy to get lost in the argument or focus entirely on the end goal. What's also critical is that we need more planning to get us off fossil fuels rapidly and without major disruptions that might undermine confidence in the energy transition itself. Here’s engineer and environmental sociologist Emily Grubert.
EG: If we succeed at reaching international climate goals, the fossil fuel infrastructure systems that support about 80 percent of global energy consumption will mostly, if not entirely, retire over the next few decades. What I'm talking about is big infrastructure like power plants and refineries, but it's also things like gas stations and people's cars, stoves and furnaces. Fossil fuel infrastructure is a complex network of high-hazard industries that need to be able to continue to operate safely until the new system is completely ready to take over, including during emergencies complicated by climate change. Just letting these systems go away would be deeply disruptive and hazardous.
We'd expect disproportionate harm to overburdened and underserved communities who can't opt out from skyrocketing prices, abandoned remediation plans and declining access to energy services. This means ongoing fossil expenditures and a reliance on highly-trained workers in industries that might not outlast their careers -- with a simultaneous focus on phasing out these same industries as quickly as possible to address climate change and a host of other environmental injustices. This is why we need to plan. And right now, there's basically nowhere in the world where these urgently needed plans for phasing out the fossil system while phasing in the clean energy system exist. When we talk about climate goals, the question I like to ask is: If we actually believed we were going to succeed, what would we need to be doing right now? One strategy here is to set deadlines for fossil asset retirements.
Ample notice, say, a decade, gives communities enough time to create and implement plans, and a legislated end date gives people enough confidence to commit to what can be an intense process. I showed that in the United States, requiring all fossil fuel-fired power generators to close by 2035, which is President Biden's power sector decarbonization target, would actually allow the large majority of them to meet or exceed a typical lifespan, potentially giving communities some confidence that these deadlines are manageable. That is what earns and maintains trust. Not far-off emissions targets with vague implementation plans.
The alternative of unplanned transitions is unacceptable but common. Planning the transition is an ethical responsibility that takes time but also creates opportunities to implement a just and sustainable future that corrects the harms of the past. Collaboration and a laser-like focus on ensuring people have what we need to succeed through this transition will be critical, particularly as the transition collides with climate tragedies. What would we do now if we believed we'd succeed? Manish Bhardwaj: Emily Grubert said something which I'm going to, really sort of, take away, maybe even teach: that plans build trust. Promises, you may not believe mine, I might not believe yours, but if we put something down, this is what we are going to do year after year, then I think that can build trust. I think that's just a beautiful thing that I'm carrying away from her.
LL: Emily challenged us to act like we're going to succeed. Ramez Naam, a technologist and entrepreneur, believes we have a real shot at it. Renewables are plummeting in price, and there's opportunity to increase their share around the world if we get out of the way of progress.
Here's some of his talk. RN: Clean energy will win on cost definitively, but only if we get out of the way and allow it to be built. Let's focus on that first point.
Let's look at the cost of clean energy technology. In 1975, if you were buying a solar panel per watt of power that it produced, it would cost you 100 US dollars. By 2020, that cost had declined to 20 cents per watt of power. That's a 500-fold decline. This is unlike anything else ever seen in energy. It is unlike anything else ever seen in physical infrastructure.
And it continues today, and it is likely to continue for decades to come. Now, this has surprised the leading experts on clean energy and even the biggest optimists on the future of clean energy. We've seen the cost of batteries that power our electric vehicles and grid energy storage drop at the same pace or faster than the pace of solar. And we are just at the very beginning of an exponential cost decline in the cost of using clean electricity to make hydrogen and other fuels that we can use to power industry, to provide weeks or months of storage on the grid and to provide fuels we can use for aviation, for shipping and so on. Clean energy technologies are technologies, and they drop in cost like technology.
As they are scaled, they come down in price. Meanwhile, fossil fuels are commodities, and fossil fuel prices fluctuate over time. But there's two barriers I want to talk about in particular, which are the reluctance to build -- not in my backyard -- and the challenges with permitting. Because we look at renewables and a common complaint is they take up too much land. All of us want clean energy infrastructure, but many of us don't want it in our backyard.
In winter you have one-seventh the solar resource in the UK that you have in summer. You have one-sixth the solar resource in Germany that you have in summer. So every model, every simulation of weather and energy demand shows this.
It shows that if you want to have the highest reliability grid at the lowest cost with the least carbon emissions and the most clean energy deployment, you want to build a continent-sized grid. In China, the bulk of energy demand is on the East Coast, yet the greatest solar resources and wind resources are in the interior. And China is building literally scores of high-voltage power lines that transmit power from where the sun and wind are to the coasts, where the energy demand is. And the longest of these lines right now, that Ürümqi to Shanghai line, is 3,400 kilometers long. It is 90 percent efficient, very low losses, and it adds maybe a penny or two to the cost of electricity.
That's what's technically feasible with current technology, let alone advances. In Europe, that would allow us to transmit electricity from Seville to Copenhagen. To bring power from the North Sea to anywhere in the continent that needs it. In my home country, the United States, we could bring power from the sunny, wide open areas of New Mexico to population and land-dense New York, which doesn't get so much sun.
And we could take wind power from the Great Plains, that are largely devoid of population, and bring it to the coasts in winter. That is what a modern grid looks like. And yet we are not building this.
It is time for us to build. DB: With technology advancing as fast as it is, there’s certainly hope that we can meet our energy transition goals, and there are ways to ensure that everyone benefits in this transition. But it's going to be challenging.
LL: There's no shortage of ideas, but time is running out, making it all the more critical to collaborate with urgency and resolve this fundamental dilemma. Here, again, are some leading voices on how we get there. MR: We all need to do three things. We need to make the climate crisis very personal in our lives, change our habits a bit as a result.
Secondly, we need to get angry about those who aren't doing enough. And thirdly, we need to imagine this world that is round the corner. ZK: Every year I can see more focus from different actors that are needed to be part of the solution.
LT: Renewable energy is a good business in many places. HM: There is a strong business case for it. It makes investment sense. HL: China is adding an astonishing amount of wind and solar to its grid every year. RN: It's cheaper to build a new solar or wind farm than it is to put fuel into a natural gas plant or a coal plant. TB: Our job has to be to make sure that politicians know that they're going to have the support that they need for the hard policies.
LN: We need people to get on board in a fight for climate justice. And this means getting people on board that have never spoken to each other before and that have always disagreed. MB: Even at this conference, you will meet people and you expect them to have very particular sort of, polar stance. But when you actually get into a conversation, you see the openings. CA: I love listening to people with different points of view. Dialogue is absolutely essential and so generative.
But once we leave the safe space of this conversation, we go back out into a world that is rife with power dynamics and institutionalized, structural inequities. And we have to just acknowledge that fact. RN: So I think it's not a bad thing to listen and then apply your own judgment to what you've heard.
And is it self-serving or not, and what nuggets of truth or what pieces of data are there? MB: What we don't want to lose is that ultimately there are people at the heart of systems. And systems change will sometimes fail just because two folks cannot get along with each other. Jade Begay: I think we overlook relationship building as kind of cheesy or corny, but ask any person who’s built change over time, and it happens through relationships. MR: I was very affected, as were the other women leaders, when Jade said, "In our tribe in New Mexico, we say, 'What if our best times are still ahead of us?'" Our best times are still ahead of us. But so are our worst times.
We have that choice. And of course, we have to choose our best times and we have to know how difficult it is. And yet, Nelson Mandela famously said "it always seems impossible until it is done." And I love that phrase.