Fossil energy remains indispensable and above all irreplaceable in transport but also in heavy industry, construction and agriculture. What we are doing today is primarily piling new decarbonised energy sources on top of existing ones. Global consumption of coal, oil and gas is not falling. There has never been in history a total replacement of one energy system by another.
One of the major problems of the transition is that the consumption of fossil fuels in the world is not decreasing. It is increasing. Oil and coal consumption reached record levels last year. Only natural gas did not, only because of the consequences of Russia's Ukraine invasion.
For two centuries we have built our civilisation and prosperity on access to an unprecedented amount of fossil energy. Easy to exploit, abundant, cheap and concentrated. Today, what we are doing above all is piling new decarbonised energy sources on top of existing ones. And we must not lose sight of the fact that the raw materials and equipment used to produce decarbonised energy are mostly manufactured and transported using fossil fuels. The energy transition cannot be achieved without coal, oil and gas. The Chinese industry, which manufactures the vast majority of photovoltaic panels, battery cells, onshore and offshore wind turbines, and refines most strategic minerals, runs on electricity produced by coal-fired power stations. The equipment we then buy is transported by ships powered by heavy fuel oil.
Fossils still account for 84% of primary energy consumption
To understand our addiction, we need to appreciate the scale of the transformation that needs to be achieved and the industrial and transport infrastructures that need to be changed. In 1960, on a global scale, fossil fuels provided 94% of the primary energy traded, i.e. extracted from the environment before being transformed. Their share slowed down to 87% in 1990 with the rise of hydro and nuclear power but it is still over 84% today despite the deployment of renewables. Changing the energy basis of a $90 trillion global economy in a quarter of a century is impossible. Let's be a little modest.
Fossil energy remains indispensable and above all irreplaceable in transport, but also in heavy industry, construction and agriculture. We are slaves to fossil fuels. Never mind the wonders of digital technology. Our lives are made of cement, steel, plastic and ammonia. We produce almost exclusively from fossil fuels respectively per year: 4.5 billion tonnes, 1.8 billion tonnes, 370 million tonnes and 150 million tonnes.
The famous soda or mineral water bottle that pollutes the ocean is just the tip of the plastic iceberg. Moulded synthetic materials make everything from lightweight vehicles to pipelines to medical equipment possible. Similarly, ammonia is the "gas that powers the world." The Haber-Bosch process, which fixes reactive nitrogen and enables the synthesis of fertilisers, is, according to Canadian academic Vaclav Smil, "perhaps the most important technical advance in history". Steel is the skeleton of our buildings and transport networks, as irreplaceable for modern structures as bones are for the body. And concrete, "the most massively deployed material of modern civilisation", is literally the foundation of our civilisations. Cement is simply the most used material on this earth after water...
Renewables add up to fossils
All energy transitions in the past have been in relative terms - that is, as a share of total production or consumption. In the 20th century, the relative use of wood and coal declined relative to oil, gas, hydro and nuclear power... but consumption of all these energy sources actually increased.
The last two centuries - and more broadly the whole of human history - have been a succession of resource piles. There has never been a total replacement of one energy system by another. Only the energy transition that humanity is undertaking today fully deserves this name, because it must imperatively lead to a radical and not relative transformation of energy sources. The problem is that, for the time being, renewables are only adding to fossil fuels on a global scale, even not on the scale of certain countries.
We are still in the era of coal - which remains the primary source of electricity -, oil and gas. It is therefore no mystery that CO2 emissions, and more broadly greenhouse gas emissions, continued to rise every year - except in 2008 and 2020 due to the economic contraction. Despite the triumphant announcements of new renewable installations and the hype of decarbonisation targets, our progress is very limited.
While the constant appearance of new gadgets in everyday life gives the impression of rapid change in contemporary technical systems, it is the industrial infrastructures with very long-life spans - power stations and networks, pipelines, refineries, roads, railways, canals, ports, heavy equipment (steel and chemicals) or collective equipment (hospitals, sewage treatment plants) - that are the real markers of the technical paradigm in which a society finds itself. All these installed 'parks' imply a gigantic inertia. Who has the courage and intellectual honesty to acknowledge this?