books climate change energy

Book review: Ending Fossil Fuels, by Holly Jean Buck

“There is already a lot of good writing on how to ramp up renewables and restore ecosystems and create a cleaner and greener world” says Holly Jean Buck, a sustainability professor at the University of Buffalo. “In contrast, writing on how we go about ending the old is comparatively scarce.”

That’s a statement that is both true and rarely acknowledged. It’s much easier to talk about the new world before us than it is to talk about winding up, decommissioning, and dismantling the infrastructure of fossil fuels. It’s why the Paris Agreement doesn’t mention fossil fuels once. Neither did the US Green New Deal. The focus is on emissions reductions and accelerating clean technologies, and on the positive side of the transition. This book suggests we should be much more purposeful about bringing the fossil fuel era to an end.

Why? Because if we don’t set targets to wind down fossil fuels, the industry will find ways to hang in there, and that will slow everything down. We’re talking about some of the world’s most powerful industries, and they are great at prolonging their role in the energy economy – and protecting their profits in the process. See ‘clean coal’, blue hydrogen, ‘carbon neutral oil’, or fracked gas as a bridge fuel. Whatever the merits of these specific ideas, they all leave the door open to ongoing fossil fuel use, and delay the implementation of more robust climate policies.

Ending Fossil Fuels has the subtitle Why Net Zero is Not Enough for similar reasons. The author tracks the origins of the phrase, and how it leapt to prominence. The problem is that net zero is ambiguous: “it offers flexibility to decarbonize what is easiest and to compensate for what is impossible or too challenging to decarbonize. But this brings up the question: Who has the power to define what is difficult to decarbonize?” Who gets to cash in the ‘net’ bit of net zero?

You could imagine a scenario, says Buck, in which rich countries decide to thoroughly cut emissions so that poorer countries could have a greater share of emissions for really critical things, such as fertiliser use. That would be a socially just net zero plan. Or you could have the world we’re currently creating, where the richest have set aviation aside as the sector that will be exempt from climate action. Without being specific about ending fossil fuels, it’s highly likely that the needs of the rich and powerful will be prioritised.

Another reason to plan carefully about the end of fossil fuels is to make sure that the fossil era ends well. That includes ensuring that nobody is left without energy as renewables come online. If there are blackouts and shortages, there will be a backlash and the fossil fuel lobby will make hay. There’s a ‘dance’, as Buck puts it, to expanding clean energy and terminating the dirty fuels. Doing it in a planned way also means we keep an eye on communities that depend on extractive industries, so that there can be retraining and investment, and nobody gets left behind.

Ending Fossil Fuels packs a lot into its pagecount, investigating the cultural changes involved, the political implications, and the geopolitics. Buck looks at other examples of deliberately ending something, such as CFCs and smoking, to learn any relevant lessons. The last section of the book then investigates the specific policies that could close the fossil fuel age, from withdrawing subsidies to dealing with investment bubbles. She discusses the possibility of nationalising oil companies in order to close them down, and finds that this would be entirely affordable if we consider the cost of wars, COVID-19 stimulus or other big recent government spends. We also see how existing fossil fuel infrastructure – and employees – could be repurposed for carbon capture and storage, which would give the industry a productive new future.

Ending Fossil Fuels is a clear and easy read, balanced in its analysis, and fills an important gap in climate discourse. And while it may be on the fringes at the moment, I’m with Holly Jean Buck when she writes that “a planned ending to fossil fuels is becoming more normal every day; it just needs a bit more encouragement.”

5 comments

  1. Does she propose how we tackle the ‘difficult’ industries that rely on fossil fuels, such as steel and cement, diesel powered lorries, ships and tractors? We cannot smoothly close fossil fuels until there are viable, affordable substitutes for these, especially in developing countries. e.g. How to replace the Afgan truck fleet…

    1. Not in detail, but there are mentions of these things, including hydrogen used in steel, etc. The main task here is to outline an approach – ie starting with the easiest things, and those most able to pay for the change. There are always going to be some things that are going to need fossil fuels for a long time to come – tractors in developing countries being an important example.

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