By Irina Slav
We are living in a carbon bubble with trillions of dollars held in oil, gas, and coal assets that would be wiped out before long as technological advancements in all sorts of industries quickly undermine fossil fuel demand.
This is the gist of a recent study led by the University of Cambridge, which involved macroeconomic simulations, with the researchers concluding we are on the brink of a much worse financial crisis than the one from 2008 as between 1 and 3 trillion worth of fossil fuel investments turn into stranded assets. For context, the authors note that the 2008 crisis was sparked by losses to the tune of US$250 billion.
The fast pace of technological progress in renewable energy and elsewhere that is producing higher levels of energy efficiency is the driver of the crisis. To avoid it, the study authors say, the world needs to deflate the bubble carefully before it bursts. Otherwise we might see a global crisis compared to which the Great Recession was a picnic.
The researchers ran repeated simulations with different scenarios as researchers tend to do in such studies and concluded that the worst case would be continued fossil fuel production in the context of falling demand, which is actually a conclusion one doesn’t need macroeconomic simulations to make.
“If OPEC nations maintain production levels as prices drop, they will crowd out the market,” says one of the authors, Hector Pollitt from Cambridge Econometrics and EENRG. “OPEC nations will be the only ones able to produce fossil fuels at the low costs required, and exporters such as the US and Canada will be unable to compete.”
But this will be just the start. As demand declines, by 2035 oil—and other fossil fuels—will sell so cheap that even large, low-cost producers will not be able to enjoy their revenues. Social and political tumult could ensue as jobs are lost and disgruntlement grows. Ironically, the push for more and stricter climate change policies will only aggravate the situation, unless it is accompanied by parallel action in fossil fuels, namely, winding down investments in their production.
This sounds decidedly questionable when you compare it with warnings from, say, OPEC’s secretary-general Mohammed Barkindo that oil prices could soar unless more money is spent on new production, but the researchers are not the only ones sounding the energy efficiency alarm.
A recent report from Norwegian quality assurance and risk management provider DNV.GL has forecast that global energy demand could plateau by 2050 thanks to energy efficiency improvements. The firm goes as far as to say that the world economy’s energy intensity will decline faster than the economy grows over the next 30 years.
The gains in energy efficiency, DNV.GL says, will in fact contribute a lot more to the energy transition that the world is undergoing than solar, wind, and electric vehicles taken together. At an average energy efficiency improvement rate of 2.5 percent annually until 2050, it is the single most important factor that could bring the world closer to meeting the Paris Agreement targets.
Energy efficiency and the technologies behind it don’t get as much headlines as solar, wind, or especially EVs. But it may turn out that it is, as the Norwegian firm calls it, the unsung hero of the energy transition.