The tipping point has arrived for fossil fuels….

Photo by Eelco Böhtlingk on Unsplash

The nature of paradigm change is that it is hard to see when it is happening, especially when it is as big a paradigm as how we human beings relate to the rest of the nature. A great many people are committed to the older paradigm (think Galileo and the earth revolving around the sun) and their views don’t change instantly when a new paradigm emerges.

We know, thanks to Malcolm Gladwell, that there are phases in paradigm change. We know that it is driven by ‘early adopters’ who see the trend early, and that it slowly becomes sticky and then reaches a ‘tipping point’. “The tipping point is that magic moment when an idea, trend, or social behavior crosses a threshold, tips, and spreads like wildfire.”

But how do we know the ‘tipping point’ has arrived? That’s a bit trickier, especially in an era where there is so much news, all the time, that it’s often hard to see the forest for the trees. And when it is not easy to sort out who has a stake in presenting a particular viewpoint.

So I paid attention this week when the brilliant Australians who run Future Crunch and produce a wonderful newsletter that tracks trends in how we relate to our world, said the tipping point on fossil fuels has arrived.

“Why do all of these stories matter? They matter because they show the tide has turned. The fossil fuels industry is now firmly on the wrong side of both history and company balance sheets and there’s nowhere else left to run. Carbon needs to be accounted for, there is no escaping it. The science has been telling us, our experience of wildfires, freak summers and extended winters has been telling us, and now finally, the mood music is telling us, from the courtrooms of The Hague to the boardrooms of Seoul and the factory lines of Zwickau.”

And they listed the evidence, via a variety of sources:

  1. Historic losses for Big Oil – Exxon lost a fight with its shareholders over climate change, Chevron’s investors told it to cut emissions, and a Dutch court ordered Shell to slash emissions by 45% by 2030.
  2. In Australia, the world’s largest exporter of coking coal and second-largest exporter of thermal coal, an Australian court ruled that the country’s federal environment minister has a duty of care to avoid harm to young people from climate change.
  3. The world’s seven largest advanced economies agreed to stop international financing of coal projects that emit carbon by the end of this year, and phase out support for all fossil fuels – leaving China as the only lender of last resort.
  4. Spain passed legislation requiring fossil fuel production to be completely phased out by 2042; 74% of electricity to come from renewable sources by 2030; and sales of internal combustion engines to end by 2040. Within the past five years, Denmark, France, and Ireland have passed similar laws ending fossil fuel exploration and drilling.
  5. South Korea’s $774.1 billion National Pension Service, the third largest pension fund in the world, will stop investing in construction of coal-fired power plants at home and abroad. Future Crunch notes that this is the 51st coal exit policy from a financial institution announced this year, a 61% increase over 2020.
  6. One fifth of all cars produced in Germany – the world’s fourth largest maker of cars – are now hybrid or electric. Manufacturers are now producing 74,000 EVs a month, and Volkswagen is now the third largest EV maker in the world after Tesla and Renault-Nissan.

There are many other stories, small and big, that show we’ve reached the tipping point. Who could imagine, for example, a pickup truck that could power your house as well as get you from place to place? If you follow the people who make it their job to track these changes, you will find many stories.

In mid-May, there was a blockbuster statement from the International Energy Agency that: “There is no need for investment in new fossil fuel supply in our net zero pathway. Beyond projects already committed as of 2021, there are no new oil and gas fields approved for development in our pathway, and no new coal mines or mine extensions are required.” 

Bill McKibben explained its significance this way in the New Yorker:

“It says that, after two hundred and fifty years, in the view of the I.E.A., the time has come to stop exploring for oil, gas, and coal. No rational plan for getting to 1.5 degrees (or anywhere near it) can deal with any new supply. Instead, the “the focus for oil and gas producers switches entirely to output—and emissions reductions—from the operation of existing assets.” That is, we obviously can’t stop burning fossil fuel tomorrow, but we have to be headed decisively in that direction—which means stopping the development of new fields and draining what we must from existing fields to hold us over until we’ve built enough solar panels and wind turbines.”

It may seem confusing when paradigms change. But it doesn’t have to be. The most useful explanation of the process I have ever found is the ‘two loops’ model developed by the Berkana Institute. It posits that as old systems die, new possibilities blossom – we just have to look for those shoots of possibility, and that is what I try to do here on Hopebuilding blog.

We know how to design for a post-fossil-fuel future – Zimbabwean architect Mick Pearce, who has described our fossil fuel use as a ‘blip’ in history, consciously designs for the transition to solar and renewable sources. And many exciting ideas for financing renewable energy – including a form of crowd-sourcing that allows all of us to help create solar energy in places where it hasn’t been common – have been popping up.

The change is underway….