What are the political consequences of fossil fuel phase-out and what is the scale of the change required? Have societies ever experienced such changes historically? Most of our knowledge about the scale of the climate challenge comes from integrated assessment models which bring together knowledge on the climate and energy systems to calculate how fast we need to phase-out and ramp up different energy sources to meet climate targets. We know that these changes would lead to stranded fossil resources (McGlade and Elkins 2015, Bauer et al. 2015) and, possibly, stranded power plants using them (Johnson et al., 2015; Pfeiffer et al., 2016). However, this research relates to stocks, not rates of change, and does not explore historical conditions of such changes, whereas the prospects of stranded assets combined with the political clout of incumbent sectors can lead to a critical constraint to how fast low-carbon energy transitions can happen. Turnheim and Geels (2013) explored the case of decline of the coal industry in the UK and found that the industry put up strong resistance before eventually collapsing. Are there cases where carbon-intensive energy sectors declined as fast as they need to in order to meet our climate goals?
This paper answers this question by analyzing the decline of incumbent energy sectors historically and compares the rates observed to those depicted to meet climate targets (for both 1.5°C and 2°C pathways). We identify historical decline episodes and rates for the world and global regions comparable to those used in the scenarios. Given the limited experience of decline in these levels, we also identify decline episodes and rates for 100 countries with the largest electricity systems.
We find that historically, significant decline episodes not caused by disruptions (crises or conflicts) are found mainly in the countries which are OECD and/or EU members (OECD+EU). Outside this group, high decline rates have usually been associated either with significant disruptions or with the substitution of oil or imported energy sources with domestic sources. We find that the 1.5°C scenarios envision the highest decline rates for coal-fired generation in 2020-2030, particularly in non-OECD Asia and OECD+EU. The rates envisioned for the former region are historically unprecedented, except for small countries. Coal decline in Asia would be made even more difficult by a young age of the existing power-plant fleet and the presence of domestic mining sector in the largest coal-consuming countries – factors significant both politically and economically. This means that it would take an unprecedented political effort to bring about these changes. The rates for OECD+EU and the entire world are lower and comparable to those observed in larger countries, though not in macro-regions. Finally, all future rates for natural gas and oil in electricity are consistent with the rates previously observed at the regional level indicating that the necessary political effort would be consistent with historical experience.
1. Bauer, N. et al., 2015. CO2 emission mitigation and fossil fuel markets: Dynamic and international aspects of climate policies. Technol. Forecast. Soc. Chang. 90, 243–256.
2. Johnson, N. et al., 2015. Stranded on a low-carbon planet: Implications of climate policy for the phase-out of coal-based power plants. Technol. Forecast. Soc. Chang. 90, 89–102.
3. McGlade, C. & Ekins, P., 2015. The geographical distribution of fossil fuels unused when limiting global warming to 2°C. Nature 517, 187–190.
4. Pfeiffer , A. et al., 2016. The ‘2°C capital stock’ for electricity generation: Committed cumulative carbon emissions from the electricity generation sector and the transition to a green economy. Applied Energy 179, 1395–1408.
5. Turnheim, B. & Geels, F.W., 2013. The destabilisation of existing regimes: Confronting a multi-dimensional framework with a case study of the British coal industry (1913–1967). Research Policy, 42(10), pp.1749–1767.