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A credible energy transition is like a Toyota Prius: How the fossil fuel debate should play out at COP28

Written by Andrew Herscowitz

Hero image description: Pelindaba Nuclear Power Plant, South Africa Image credit:Pelindaba Nuclear Power Plant, South African Tourism Image license:CC BY 2.0

Among the hottest debates at COP28 will be those about fossil fuels and the needs of the poorest countries in the world. Some are upset that the hosts of the climate summit run one of world’s largest oil & gas companies, with accusations that they are using the summit to advance their country’s and company’s economic interests. Others defend the hosts, claiming that they understand the fossil fuel industry and can push for real change.

Here's an attempt at a balanced discussion about the role of fossil fuels in the energy transition.

The transportation industry is instructive for the energy transition. First, the transition from coal-powered trains to diesel to electric trains still is not complete in the U.S.. Human nature has always pushed people towards using the most convenient and attractive form of transport they can afford (bicycle, motorcycle, car, truck), regardless of its unfortunate impacts on climate. Just look at the 70,000 climate warriors who are flying to COP28 and who are staying at air-conditioned hotels in the desert.

Some people who care deeply about the climate agenda still opt to buy hybrid vehicles instead of electric vehicles (EV) in the U.S. because they worry that they can’t get the range that they need with an EV or that they won’t be able to conveniently charge their EV. The Toyota Prius first came out in Japan in 1997 and in North America in 2000. Yet only within the last few years have EVs, with significant tax incentives, become more mainstream among the upper-middle class in the U.S. That’s a 25-year transition from hybrid to EV.

It is instructive to look at the auto industry to see how the energy transition likely will unfold – observing the realities of customer behavior and needs, as well as what actually is available on the market.

Unfortunately, we cannot flip a switch from fossil fuels to renewables tomorrow. We cannot just swap out 100 MW of intermittent solar power for 100 MW of gas-powered baseload power. Baseload or dispatchable power comes from sources of energy that can be made available 24 hours/day regardless of weather conditions. Fossil fuels provide baseload power. There also are renewable forms of baseload power including geothermal, hydro, and nuclear power. Geothermal power is not available everywhere because it depends on naturally occurring heat sources in the ground. Hydropower also is not available everywhere, can strain to provide electricity during droughts, and can have detrimental social and environmental impacts. Nuclear power remains expensive to build and is not readily available.

Fortunately, many African countries are blessed with hydropower and geothermal (East Africa), and even South Africa has some nuclear power. Wind and solar, though, are intermittent sources of energy, which generally only provide electricity when the sun is shining and the wind is blowing. Some forms of solar energy can provide energy at night because they use different technologies that allow them to store power for up to eight hours, but those forms of solar power still tend to be a bit expensive and require a tremendous amount of steady sunlight. It is hopeful that the vast majority of the power projects that the U.S.’s Power Africa initiative has supported since its inception in 2013 are renewable power projects, but most of the early megawatts came from gas projects given the desperate need for baseload power in sub-Saharan Africa.

Many people like hybrid vehicles because gas kicks in if or when the electricity is not available. Hybrids vehicles provide people with personal energy security in their transport.

Similarly, people and countries are not willing to give up their energy security or economic development, as we saw many European countries turn back to fossil fuels during the Ukraine War, while also pursuing newer renewable projects. Similarly, during the Israel-Gaza conflict, we’ve seen loud international calls for fuel to power Gaza, even though there have been attempts to develop solar resources in Gaza. No matter how badly people want investment in fossil fuels to end now, it is not going to happen. It is more practical to focus on what can and should happen.

On the one hand, there’s a camp that believes that we need to “phase out” fossil fuels. There’s another camp that believes that we should “phase down” fossil fuels. They both use the word “phase.” Isn’t agreeing to “phase out” fossil fuels over the next 50 years worse than agreeing to “phase down” fossil fuels now? The G7 agreed to phase out “unabated” fossil fuels by 2050. What does “unabated” even mean? Does it mean that if you use some currently expensive carbon capture technology to reduce 10% of the emissions from a coal plant, you’re “phasing down?”

Here is what’s important:

  • Carbon Emitters Need to Step Up. We will get the greatest immediate impact of reducing carbon emissions by focusing on the countries that are responsible for the most carbon emissions. That’s mostly the G-20 countries. They need to reduce their emissions, and for the most part, they can afford to do that because they have the largest economies. Even if they don’t transfer a single dime to the Global South for Loss & Damages, they can do themselves and the rest of the world a favor and stop polluting so egregiously. Just because you can’t see emissions with your eyes doesn’t mean they’re not there. If they can reduce their emissions through some means other than phasing down or phasing out fossil fuels, then great. But in the meantime, they need to stop burning so many fossil fuels now, protect the atmosphere, and let the world breathe clean air.
  • Help the Poorest Countries and People. The poorest countries of the world, particularly those in Africa, are the least responsible for global emissions. They also produce the least amount of energy and suffer from the worst poverty. They will not emerge from poverty unless they get access to a sufficient amount of energy at the household level, a/k/a Modern Energy Minimum, to be able to light their homes, charge their phones, cook, heat and cool their houses, and run productive equipment that can help them earn enough income. The poorest countries also need sufficient baseload energy for their electrical grids from hydropower, geothermal, and yes, gas, to allow them to significantly expand their sources of intermittent renewable energy like wind and solar. Baseload power ensures that there can have sufficient electricity 24 hours/day – like a hybrid vehicle.
  • People Need to Cook Cleaner. We cannot forget that nearly 3 billion people globally continue to use charcoal, biomass and wood to cook. They cut down a lot of trees that store carbon. A family can light its home and charge its phones and computers and watch television with a 100-watt solar panel. But cooking is energy intensive. It takes nearly 700 watts of electricity to boil a single pot of water. That’s why gas, which produces heat for cooking, paired with solar power for basic electricity, currently tends to be the least expensive, “cleaner” way for the people who live far from the electric grid to live modern energy lifestyle today. Electrical grids are nowhere near many homes in Africa and likely won’t be for years to come, so electric cooking is not an option. Portable gas for cooking is a reliable transition source of energy until the power grid reaches homes or until other affordable, distributed renewable energy systems become available and affordable.
  • Focus on What Works Now. First, we must invest big on scaling proven climate smart technologies that are available now – solar, wind, geothermal, batteries, hydropower, nuclear, EVs, charging stations and continue to bring costs and the costs of financing down. Anyone who tells you that we never will be able to have a grid without fossil fuels is wrong. Africa has limitless renewable energy resources that could power, heat, and cool the entire continent and even Europe. If we could focus on more immediate investments in cross-border transmission infrastructure and promote cross-border power trading, for example, it could bring baseload power from the countries that have hydro and geothermal power to those that do not have those forms of baseload energy, allowing them to scale solar and wind in a more sustainable way. Look at Power Africa’s Mega Solar effort, for example, which makes the case that if the vast deserts in Botswana and Namibia were to scale solar power, they could provide clean energy to least eight other neighboring countries, with back-up power from hydropower plants in countries like Zimbabwe and Zambia. But the transmission infrastructure and power trading arrangements need to be developed.

Second, we need to keep working to bring down the costs of capture carbon technology for fossil fuels, just like we’re working on bringing down the costs of clean hydrogen, small modular nuclear power, and batteries. While these newer technologies are exciting, none have been commercially scaled yet. They’re all worth pursuing and likely will be commercially viable over the next 10-20 years. That’s why accepting that fossil fuels will take time to phase down, while newer technologies become more affordable, can be a hard pill to swallow, but it’s an honest assessment of how the energy transition will take place if equity, development, and security are factored in.

A slower global energy transition will mean that global warming at the end of the century will be well above 2C. Continued fossil fuel dependence globally will exacerbate the problem. A new study, however, finds that eradicating extreme poverty would have minimal GHG emissions. Withholding inexpensive modern energy from the world’s poor by being overly dogmatic about their need to only use clean energy, which is not even readily available to most, is to punish them for the excesses of the world’s wealthy. We need low-carbon and climate-resilient development.

Just like the Toyota Prius came to market 25 years ago, playing its role in reducing carbon emissions and paving the way for the EV industry, we likely will take a similar journey with the energy transition – one that aims to phase out fossil fuels, but that realizes that a “hybrid” electrical grid currently is necessary to provide commercially reasonable, equitable, and reliable energy for much of the African continent. We will get to the point when the electrical grid is run completely by renewables. And though EVs are 100% electrical and are responsible for lower levels of emissions than gas-powered vehicles, most continue to be charged by power grids that still rely on fossil fuels. We can all do better.