May you live in interesting times. So goes the ancient Chinese curse. Yes, curse, because interesting times are always full of rapid change and disruption, often demanding action and adaptation. Yuck.
The timelines may be off a few years here or there, but the direction is clear: renewable energies like solar and wind are rapidly becoming the mainstream sources of energy around the world, and that means remarkable opportunities, but also radical change.
2015 saw the largest annual increase in renewables ever, with an additional 147 gigawatts (a gigawatt = 1,000 megawatts) coming online. This was a tipping point, with the world adding more capacity for renewable energy each year than coal, oil, gas, and nuclear combined.
Solar is the newest renewable added to the mix, but it is growing so rapidly that the International Energy Agency predicts that within 30 years solar will be the world’s biggest single source of electricity.
This sounds great, creating a lot of jobs manufacturing, designing, installing and maintaining all that new renewable energy infrastructure. But wait, the effect on the fossil fuel industry will also be profound.
CARBON BUBBLE BURST?
I hesitate to write about this in an area like Northeast B.C. that is so dependent on the fossil fuel industry. But the more I research the energy industry and the dire need to quickly deal with catastrophic climate change, the more worried I become.
I am not the only one worried. If investment in renewables is outstripping investment in fossil fuels, with the gap getting bigger every year, then things are indeed getting dicey for the fossil fuel industries on which so many people depend.
To limit the most dire effects of a rapidly changing climate, most plans now demand that most of the planet’s coal, oil and gas remain unburnt. Fuels that cannot be burned are not worth much. Companies whose major assets are coal mines, oil fields, oil sands, gas wells, pipelines and refineries may be worth much less money than their stock prices would indicate.
The difference between the “valuations” of fossil fuel companies and their “true worth” is so large that many national banks, financial industry associations and high-end investors around the world are warning that it represents a bubble as large as the 2007 Subprime Crisis.
THE BANKS ARE WORRIED
The bank Barclays, for instance, estimates that limiting emissions to two degrees Celsius will drop the future revenue of the fossil industries by $33 trillion over the next 25 years. Citigroup says that the total value of stranded high-carbon assets “could be over $100 trillion.” The Bank of England published a new white paper in January 2017 in which it stated that the bursting of the Carbon Bubble was “likely to be abrupt” and “likely to pose risks to financial stability.”
But the white paper also states that not everyone will be hurt equally. Those who are most heavily invested in carbon infrastructure and those most heavily dependent on subsidized cheap carbon energy will be hurt most. Together they make up about 28 percent of global equity markets.
SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST
Those who are gearing up for change, however, will benefit from the carbon crash. Automakers who continue the long hard fight to keep making gas-burning cars will be hurt badly, while other car-makers, like Tesla and China’s BYD, are geared up to benefit from a low-carbon world.
In fact, most of the global economy, some 72 per cent according to the Bank of England, doesn’t really depend on fossil fuels as much as we assume. For them, bursting the bubble sooner rather than later will be an advantage, as the damage to the broader financial markets will be less.
People will still buy refrigerators in a low-carbon world, just not energy inefficient ones that are designed to be replaced every five years.
People will still buy cars too, but they’ll buy electric ones that are guaranteed for life, require essentially no maintenance and run on fuel you can make yourself from sunlight. The old world will change to a new and better one, if we embrace it and it’s opportunities. It’s adapt or disappear in these “interesting times.”
Don Pettit can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org