“G7 leaders bid 'Auf Wiedersehen' to carbon fuels,” reads Monday’s heading in Reuters. “G7 leaders agree to phase out fossil fuel use by end of century,” proclaims The Guardian. The headlines are striking, and they’re not hyperbole. On June 8, top officials from many of the world’s wealthiest democracies called for a decarbonized global economy by 2100. Furthermore, they announced a commitment to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions 40-70 percent from 2010 levels by mid-century. If followed through, these cuts would require an economy-wide transformation that some liken to the Apollo mission.
Still, many experts following climate and energy affairs aren’t jumping with joy in response to the news from the Germany summit. For starters, the target is a long ways off, while climate scientists contend we need drastic emissions reductions sooner, rather than later, in order to avert potentially catastrophic temperature rise. Furthermore, the pledge isn’t exactly ground-breaking; G8 leaders had already agreed to cut global emissions at least 50 percent by 2050—six years ago. That was before the 2009 U.N. climate conference in Copenhagen (COP-15). With COP-21 in Paris just around the corner and the stakes higher than ever, some voice concerns over a similarly vague long-term promise.
Despite these doubts, the announcement still remains significant. It reflects a growing international consensus that meaningful, global action must be taken in light of climate change. It boldly says what needs to be said: the future is not in fossil fuels. German Chancellor and G7 host Angela Merkel made climate change the central focus -- at a gathering that sought to address a plethora of high-profile topics including but not limited to terrorism, world hunger, opportunities for women, Greek debt, public health and relations with Russia. But despite impressive rhetoric, the call to shift away from fossil fuels didn’t offer any new insights on the more substantive issue: just exactly how will these reductions be met? What does a decarbonized economy look like?
Lately, the focus of policy makers has been reducing the carbon intensity of the electricity sector, which is responsible for 31 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Rather than by burning coal and gas—the biggest culprit in spewing climate change causing GHG’s into the atmosphere—an increasing share of electricity will need to be generated from carbon neutral technologies such as solar, wind, hydro and other future technologies. Indeed, we could power most buildings, cars and more on 100 percent renewable energy.
But, what about this future? Will it utilize the raft of renewable resources available: solar, wind, hydro, geothermal, biomass, biofuels and biogas (including waste streams)? And even if we do get to a 100 percent electric future – how will the transition occur? EIA conservatively predicts that the internal combustion engine will likely be the dominant light duty vehicle for decades to come, making fuel efficiency, low-carbon transportation fuels and other technologies crucial. Totally phasing out fossil fuels—especially petroleum— requires a diverse set of solutions.
While the 1974 Oil Embargo spurred a transition away from petroleum-based electricity, the United States still spends $1 billion on imported oil every day, primarily for the transportation sector. Today, 27 percent of GHG emissions are from the transportation sector. Technological advances in electricfication of the transportation sector are promising, but some areas will require biofuels for the forseeable future. Additionally, energy efficiency, smart growth and community planning are essential in lowering the total amount of petroleum we use. But, even if all the smart growth, electric drive and other measures are deployed, trucks, planes, ships, freight will still demand liquid fuel for some time to come. Certain industrial processes are also deeply reliant on fossil fuels, including plastics, medicine, consumer goods and materials. If we want to truly get off oil – we need renewable replacements for these petroleum products as well.
Enter biofuels. Biofuels and biodiesel can substitute for gasoline and diesel and is made from organic materials, including corn but also agricultural wastes, organic wastes and purpose grown feedstocks. The transportation sector could transition from petroleum to a mixture of electricity and biofuels in the near future, but policy certainty is needed on these fuels – for feedstock growers, ethanol refineries, gas station owners and automotive manufacturers. Indeed, without this certainty, the advanced fuels industry has already suffered from a lack of investor confidence and companies are looking towards more stable markets in Europe, Asia and South America.
Looking forward, it’s not impossible to predict how a truly decarbonized global economy will likely operate. It includes electricity sourced from solar and wind, biofuels and biobased products, and other technologies such as geothermal, hydro, and fuel cells. Biofuels will remain essential in transitioning the world away from oil and gas as efficient, affordable, renewable technology—and corresponding infrastructure—continues to develop. And they will remain important in key sectors of the economy. As for 2100, a completely decarbonized world is within reason, but we haven’t nabbed the brass ring yet. While the last century saw an unprecedented wave of invention and scientific discovery, the United States, and the global community needs to truly commit to this global transformation to go ‘fossil free’ once and for all.
Author: Billy Lee
For more information, see:
Oil: Quick Facts, C2ES
G7 fossil-fuel pledge: what’s the plan?, Euro News
G7: End of fossil fuel era?, BBC News