The myth of the energy transition

Image: Pok Rie


Large energy-intensive industries are comfortable with the energy transition slogan

sans transition - a new history of energy (No Transition. A New History of Energy) challenges current belief. In the work, published by Editora Seuil, Fredric Jameson's famous phrase is taken: “It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism” and goes one step further: “It is easier to escape capitalism than of the fossil fuel economy.” At the same time, the need and possibility of an energy transition to zero-emission sources seems the only viable path.

It seems that we are facing a repetition of what already happened with wood, coal and oil: every 50 years, one of them replaces the previous one to become the dominant source of energy. This is what the graphs in energy history books show. Now it's the turn of clean energy sources.

These graphs describe the percentage that corresponds to each energy source within the total energy consumed. It was only in the 1970s that the story of energy began to be told in such relative terms. In the past, absolute values, i.e. how many tons of wood, coal or oil were consumed, were used to evaluate the use of different sources.

And if we look at the absolute values, we will realize that there is no energy source for which we can speak of a “peak”. You can also see that none of them have stopped growing in terms of consumption. Coal could no longer be number one in a few years. Until now, there has never been an “energy transition” from one source to another on a global scale.

Instead of “transition”, we talk about energetic “symbiosis”. This is another point that needs to be emphasized in the historiography of energy. These sources were seen as separate entities: at first wood was dominant, then it was replaced by coal, which in turn was succeeded by oil.

But this narrative obscures the correlations between the curves, which show a much more pronounced intertwining of different energy sources: so, for example, coal was crucial in the production of all the steel that made the oil-based economy necessary.

And in turn, coal depends on wood: the United Kingdom consumed more carpentry wood in 1900 than it burned in 1800. Thus, the different sources are in symbiosis with each other. There is also symbiosis in terms of products, in which different raw materials are increasingly intertwined.

We are gaining in energy efficiency through products that are increasingly complex and increasingly difficult to recycle. This is happening with smartphones and, similarly, with electric cars. And the problem of this symbiosis is growing.

An energy transition is truly possible. This idea owes much to an Italian scientist, physicist Cesare Marchetti. In the 1970s, he was one of the first to apply so-called “logistic” curves to energy transitions, according to which many phenomena follow an “S-shaped” progression. Think about the spread of an epidemic: growth is slow at first, then it accelerates in the middle phase and finally stabilizes.

Cesare Marchetti thought this could also be applied to the use of energy sources. Today, however, he is criticized for this mechanistic view of the history of energy. But it is interesting to note that Cesare Marchetti brought up S curves to explain the fact that the emergence of a new technology or energy source is not so fast, because it takes decades to overcome the inertia of an industrial system.

Compared to his contemporaries, who thought a rapid transition was viable, he was considered a “pessimist”, predicting that we would not run out of coal until the year 2000 – a distant date in time. His prediction was contradicted by the facts. The most pessimistic voice of the 1970s now seems too optimistic to us.

The energy transition puts the profits of large energy-intensive industries at risk. Although it may seem counterintuitive, the industry is comfortable with the energy transition slogan. Today, all large companies promise to move towards carbon neutrality.

The person who started it was Edward David, director of research at Exxon and former scientific advisor to Richard Nixon, who in 1982 posed the question in these terms: the greenhouse effect is undeniable, but which will come first, the climate disaster or the energy transition? ? Climate scientists have argued that the first effects of global warming would be felt in the early 2000s and that the situation would be catastrophic by 2080.

Instead, it is assumed that the energy transition will last 50 years. Thus, the inevitability of the transition became an excuse for short-term inaction. Economist and Nobel laureate William Nordhaus even theorized postponing the transition until as late as possible so that it could be carried out with the most advanced technologies that, without a doubt, can reach there. The conventional wisdom was that self-powered nuclear reactors would soon be developed.

The myth of the energy transition served to sideline other strategies to combat climate change. Just read the latest IPCC Group III report: around 3.000 scenarios were analyzed and none of them even contemplate degrowth. It is strange that, on the one hand, there is talk of an existential crisis, but it is not even accepted as a hypothesis.

The energy transition allows us to imagine a growing economy without emissions, and this buries the issue of wealth redistribution. It also does not allow us to assess the value of the goods we produce: cement, a highly emitting material, can be used for positive purposes for infrastructure in developing countries or for superfluous goods in the rich world, but this debate is not allowed.

Initially, IPCC Group III was mainly made up of economists, and now they are mainly modelers. We are entrusting the problem to experts and excluding citizens from the debate.

There is this awareness among environmental movements. Many environmentalists also talk about the energy transition. Yes, most movements have long argued that technology alone will not solve the problem of climate change. But there are many neoliberal-minded environmentalists who have embraced the transition rhetoric, betting heavily on solar energy. The problem is that we are realizing that decarbonizing the economy is a much more difficult task than transitioning to renewable energy.

*Jean-Baptiste Fressoz and pprofessor at the École des Hautes Etudes des Sciences Sociales de Paris (EHESS). He is the author, among other books, of L'Apocalypse joyeuse: Une histoire du risque technologique (Seuil).

Translation: Eleutério FS Prado.

Originally published on the portal Sinpermiso.

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