How fast can we transition to a low-carbon energy system?

Starting later this month, the world’s nations will convene in traumatized Paris to hammer out commitments to slow down global climate change. Any long-term solution will require “decarbonizing” the world energy economy – that is, shifting to power sources that use little or no fossil fuel.

How fast can this happen, and what could we do to accelerate this shift?

A look at the history of other infrastructures offers some clues.

Energy infrastructures

Decarbonization is an infrastructure problem, the largest one humanity has ever faced. It involves not only energy production, but also transportation, lighting, heating, cooling, cooking and other basic systems and services. The global fossil fuel infrastructure includes not only oil and gas wells, coal mines, giant oil tankers, pipelines and refineries, but also millions of automobiles, gas stations, tank trucks, storage depots, electric power plants, coal trains, heating systems, stoves and ovens.

The total value of all this infrastructure is on the order of US$10 trillion, or nearly two-thirds of US gross domestic product. Nothing that huge and expensive will be replaced in a year, or even a few years. It will take decades.

Yet there is good news, of a sort, in the fact that all infrastructure eventually wears out. A 2010 study asked: what if the current energy infrastructure were simply allowed to live out its useful life, without being replaced?

Source: How fast can we transition to a low-carbon energy system?

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