The world’s rising reliance on fossil fuels may come to an end decades earlier than the most polluting companies predict, offering early signs of hope in the global battle to tackle the climate crisis.
The climate green shoots have emerged amid a renewable energy revolution that promises an end to the rising demand for oil and coal in the 2020s, before the fossil fuels face a terminal decline.
The looming fossil fuel peak is expected to emerge decades ahead of forecasts from oil and mining companies, which are betting that demand for polluting energy will rise until the 2040s.
But energy experts are adjusting their forecasts as clean energy technologies, including wind and solar power, emerge faster than predicted and at costs that pose a direct threat to coal-fired electricity and combustion-engine vehicles.
In the UK, renewable energy projects generated more electricity over the last quarter than fossil fuels for the first time since the country’s first public power plant fired up in 1882. It is a marked change from only 10 years ago, when gas and coal generated more than 70% of the UK’s electricity.
The pace of progress has raised hope that the global groundswell of climate protest could spark fresh political will to accelerate the energy transition in time to keep global temperatures from rising to levels that could trigger a climate catastrophe.
The UK Labour party has promised a Green Industrial Revolution to create almost 70,000 new jobs while working to create a carbon-neutral economy by 2030. In the US, the Green New Deal, spearheaded by the congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, aims to virtually eliminate the US’s greenhouse gas emissions within the next decade.
Within the energy industry, experts believe the rapid rise of renewable energy in recent years may soon seem glacial compared with the changes to come.
Michael Liebreich, the founder of the research group Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF), says the substitution of old technology with new is always “like waiting for a sneeze”.
“The first 1% takes forever, 1% to 5% is like waiting for a sneeze – you know it’s inevitable but it takes longer than you think – then 5% to 50% happens incredibly fast,” he says.
The world is about to enter this period of rapid transformation, he says. This change promises to upend the fossil fuel producers that fail to adapt at pace, and bring the rise of carbon emissions to an end. A growing number of energy experts agree.
“Over the next decade we’ll see a far quicker than expected rollout of a number of clean energy technologies, which will almost certainly mean global emissions plateau,” Liebreich adds.
The rollout is expected whether politicians increase their ambition or not, because the economics of clean energy are now too strong to ignore.
Earlier this summer, BNEF reported that not only was renewable energy cheaper than building a new gas or coal plant, but it would soon be cheaper than using existing thermal plants too.
This economic tipping point means it would save money to shut existing coal-fired power plants down and build new renewable energy projects from scratch. Abundant clean electricity could help remove the emissions from the world’s transport and heating systems too.
By 2030, BNEF expects demand for road fuels to peak, while coal is expected to peak by 2026. DNV GL, a global energy advisory, believes that by the same year oil will no longer be the world’s biggest energy source, and by the end of the 2020s the world’s demand for crude will begin to fall.
“It provides a lot of hope,” says Seb Henbest, the lead author of the BNEF report. “It provides a counterbalance to the doom and gloom we face, partly because it includes up-to-date data which tells a slightly different story.”
It is a cautionary tale for fossil fuel companies that believe the world’s demand for polluting energy will continue to rise until the middle of the century. It is also a new narrative of hope, he says.
“We’re a lot further on than we were. And yes, we need to go faster. And yes, it’s difficult and complicated. But at the same time we now live in a world where two-thirds of the global population live in a country where wind and solar power is the cheapest form of new electricity capacity. We have the tools to do this,” he says.
Chris Stark, the head of the UK’s official climate adviser, the Committee on Climate Change, says the precedent set by the renewables industry proves that emerging technologies to capture carbon emissions can follow suit.
“Even 10 years ago we were looking at a very different trajectory for global temperatures. We’ve moved on to a trajectory that today looks like 3C of warming [above pre-industrial levels], but prior to this we were on track for more than that; 4C, possibly even higher,” he says.
The progress to date is not yet enough to meet global targets set in the Paris climate agreement, but a plateau in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 could play a major role in averting catastrophic global heating above 3C. It also proves that further ambition could bring the world closer to the sub-2C goal.
“This change is a testament to new climate policies, and the work that has been done around the world. We need to do more of that,” he adds.
The UK plans to lead the world’s future climate ambitions. Next year, Glasgow will host the UN’s 26th Conference of the Parties climate talks, known as COP26, to set out a roadmap that keeps rising temperatures well within 2C above pre-industrialised levels.
Claire Perry MP, the president for COP26, says the climate talks are “where the rubber hits the road on the historic Paris agreement”. She adds that “expectations are rightly high” due to the “mounting public concern over climate change”, but the UK is ready to deliver on those expectations.