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No Future for Fossil Fuels

Changes happen fast.

A lot of analysts are still still arguing that oil will be a at the center of the economy for a long time. In their view it may take generations to transition away from fossil fuels. The evidence seems to say they are wrong.

Take coal, for example – In the USA, coal has lost share at at a rate that suggest the will be no coal industry within 20 years. Major coal companies have lost 99% of their value in just 56 years.decline-of-coal

There have been equally rapid energy transitions in the past. Whale oil disappeared form the market in a few decades. Electricity became a major power source in just a few decades. The transition away from fossil fuels isn’t really as dramatic as it seems. And it is underway.

If you wanted to argue that real change will be slow you might point out that coal has been replaced by natural gas – another fossil fuel.

The shift to natural gas is a serious problem. Natural gas produces less short-term climate change than coal only if there is little methane leakage associated with its extraction. Methane, the main component of natural gas, is a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, and it is thought that leaks at drilling fields could outweigh its potential benefit even in the short run. Conversion to natural gas will only have long term benefits if and when we start to harvest the methane that is being released from permafrost and arctic seas as the climate warms. Natural gas infrastructure will then be reducing the feedback effect of climate warming.

The detour into natural gas is not reducing climate warming, but it is helping to show just how fast the energy system can switch between sources.

China’s use of coal has already peaked. China officially expects emissions to rise until 2030, although some western experts argue that even total emissions may have peaked already. According to them, China is under-promising – setting goals that it is sure it can meet. In any case, coal is on the way out.

Planned increases in coal production in India could add 10% to world CO2 emissions, but in fact it seems India’s coal industry is so inefficient that it will not come near that target.

Does it matter that only one of the three main fossil fuels is about to vanish? Sure it does. It is inevitable that one has to go first, and coal was both biggest and most vulnerable.The four major coal companies have lost 99% of their value in the lat 5 years as investors realize that most of the world’s coal will stay in th4e ground. It will happen to oil next.

The Decline of Coal in Three Charts