LONDON, June 2 (Reuters) – Whether we like it or not, modern civilisation is built on fossil fuels. Oil, natural gas and coal still account for around 85% of the world’s primary energy inputs. While these represent a small fraction of reported global GDP, they support all other economic activities. Ending our dependence on hydrocarbons was always going to be a tough call. The ongoing process of deglobalisation makes it even harder.
Currently there are no readily available mass-scale alternatives for the use of petrochemicals in feedstocks or fuel for bulk shipping and air travel. Despite increasing concern over the risks posed by climate change, the use of fossil fuels has increased by around 20% since the turn of the century.
To date we have taken only tiny steps away from hydrocarbons. Electric vehicles accounted for 5% of global car sales last year. Wind and solar power still only account for a small share of electricity generation. If history is any guide, the transition is likely to be painfully slow. It took more than a century for crude oil, which was first extracted in the United States, Canada and Russia in the 1850s, to overtake coal as the world’s largest energy source. “Large energy transitions,” writes Smil, “have always been gradual, prolonged affairs unfolding across generations, and the shift from carbon to non-carbon energies will be no exception.”