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Jun 12, 2023

Life is about transitions. The world and history have experienced many transitions. World empires have transitioned from the Persians, to the Greeks, to the Egyptians, to the Romans, to Medieval Europe, to the Spanish, to the French, to the British, and now to the United States.

Transitions are constant and change our lives. Most of you remember pay phones. When was the last time you saw a pay phone? I remember party line telephones when I was young. I expect landline telephones will be as extinct as pay phones during my lifetime.

Like all other things in life, energy has gone through a number of transitions. The energy transitions started with wood. It has been used for heating and cooking for thousands of years. It was later used in steam engines, including railroads and industrial applications. Although coal was used as early as the 13th century, it was difficult to mine and wood remained the primary energy source until the early 1700s when wood became scarce in western Europe and the British metalworking industry adopted coal as their primary fuel.

In time, coal replaced wood in heating houses. My home as a young child still had an old coal bin in the garage and I would get spanked for playing in it. However, energy transitions have never been fast or exclusive. Wood was still half the world’s energy market as late as 1900.

Oil was discovered in the U.S. in 1859. However, it was more than 50 years later that oil started making strong inroads as the leading source of energy in the world. The British converted its renowned naval fleet from coal to oil during World War I, but it was not until the 1960s that oil overtook coal as the leading source of world energy. Today, wood, coal and oil together provide most of the world’s energy.

Daniel Yergin, an author and speaker on energy policy and geopolitics, founder of the Cambridge Energy Research Associates and Vice President of S&P, wrote The New Map, a 2021 book on energy transitions and a recent article, Bumps in the Energy Transition, for S&P. Mr. Yergin’s thoughts are the basis for this article.

Previous energy shifts were largely the result of economic and technological advances that stretched across a century or more. The current effort to transition from fossil fuels to renewables is driven almost entirely by political pressures and policies in a relatively short period of time.

Nothing close to the magnitude of the renewable energy transition has ever been attempted. The objective is not just to bring on new energy resources, but to totally eliminate fossil fuels and transition the world’s entire $100 trillion energy economy in about 25 years, not hundreds.

The scope and scale of the transition are so great that there should be more analysis of the economic impacts before starting such ambitious programs. The Peterson Institute for International Economics has stated, “Accelerating the targets for net carbon emission reductions too aggressively could create much larger economic disruptions than generally expected and cause an adverse supply shock very much like the shocks of the 1970s.” 

Other economists have expressed concern that the massive net-zero carbon transition within 25 years is unlikely benign, and policymakers should prepare for difficult issues and tough choices. Jean Pisani-Ferry, the co-founder of Brugel, Europe’s leading economic think tank, wrote in a Brugel Blueprint series, “Climate action has become a major macroeconomic issue, but the macroeconomics of climate action are far from the level of rigor and precision that is now necessary to provide a sound basis for public discussions and to guide policymakers adequately. Advocacy has too often taken precedence over analysis. The policy conversations analysis and, at this stage of the discussions, complacent scenarios have become counterproductive. The policy conversations now need methodical, peer-examined assessments of the potential costs and benefits of alternative plans of climate action.”

Advocates of a Net Zero Carbon economy demand immediate and complete movement away from fossil fuels regardless of the cost or damage. They demand absolute adherence to policies prohibiting using or financing fossil fuel energy resources. Also, despite assertions that no one is coming for your gas stoves, New York and California have implemented regulations banning gas stoves in new construction. How long before existing gas stoves are removed from our houses or beef production is outlawed, all in a sacrifice to the climate gods?

The scope and depth of the energy policy transition envisioned by many — where fossil fuels are banned across the globe and all energy comes from renewable or carbon-free energy sources – is the greatest economic and social transition ever contemplated by the human race.         

It appears few anticipate the disruption. It could lead to the demise of another world empire.

 I hope you have a good month.

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