No living person has ever known a world without fossil fuels; we are so used to them that it is hard to imagine an alternative reality. But experts insist that if we are to achieve the goals of combating climate change, we will need to abandon these sources of energy. There are also projections that the reserves of fossil fuel accessible at current prices will run out in the course of this century, forcing the transition. Will we ever see a world without fossil fuels?
In its annual World Energy Outlook published in October 2023, the International Energy Agency (IEA) predicts that over the course of this decade, demand for fossil fuels will reach an all-time high and then begin to fall: by 2030, the agency predicts, the share of oil, coal and natural gas in the global energy supply, which has hovered around 80% for decades, will drop for the first time to 73%. “We may be witnessing the beginning of the end of the fossil fuel era,” the agency’s executive director, Fatih Birol, wrote in a commentary. Other organisations, however, say the peak in demand won’t arrive until the 2030s.
A slow decline
The predicted decline in demand is due to the move towards renewable energy and electric vehicles, which is also being driven by regulatory measures. The European Union and the United Kingdom will ban the sale of new petrol and diesel cars from 2035. Other countries are considering similar plans, including China. Given the foreseeable increase in the price of these fuels for older vehicles, the focus is on e-fuels (or electrofuels) made from captured CO2, green hydrogen and clean electricity, making them carbon neutral (they emit what is captured). There are also proposals to phase out coal and natural gas as part of many countries’ commitments to achieve carbon neutrality or “net zero” by 2050.
However, according to Birol, the decline will be very slow: “Fossil fuels will be with us for many years to come”. The IEA also makes clear that this is far from enough to meet the Paris agreement’s preferred goal of limiting warming to 1.5°C, and that stronger action will be needed to achieve this. The UN has also warned that we are currently not on track to meet this target.
But given that fossil fuels are non-renewable, various sources have estimated how long reserves can be extracted at current price levels. The US estimates that there are enough oil reserves to meet world demand until 2050; some sources estimate specific depletion dates: oil in 2052, natural gas in 2060 and coal in 2090. Estimates may vary, but the essential message remains the same: fossil fuels are running out, but we must stop using them before they do, or the worst predictions of climate change will come true. Are we up to the challenge?