Words by Susan Krumdieck
Let’s think of the energy transition as a mission to save the Earth. It’s an impossible situation, writes Susan Krumdieck, but drastic times call for unlikely heroes
In the movies, when there’s a mission to save the Earth, we know who the hero is and we trust that failure is not an option. But right now, we are losing the battle to prevent destructive global climate change, and we’re losing big. Our backs are against the wall.
We are not losing because we don’t have enough solar panels or wind turbines, or because we haven’t made enough biofuel. For the past 50 years, we have placed our hopes in green technologies as substitutes for fossil fuels, but sustainable energy alone is not a realistic way to achieve our mission — and now we are out of time. The reason we are losing is because the world is consuming 100 million barrels of oil every day. Fossil fuel is used for everything: providing our food, making our stuff, getting to work and having fun. There is no fuel that can compete on cost, performance and availability. If the oil supply stopped flowing tomorrow, every system would fail. But if it keeps flowing, climate stability will fail. This is what we call a “wicked problem”, one for which there is no solution. The rational options are to redesign, redevelop, regenerate, redo, rebuild, reorganize everything.
Considered objectively, we know there’s no way to win this battle for the Earth. The oil companies, for example, have annual returns of over US$6 trillion. The International Energy Agency recommends the elimination of all oil and gas subsidies, but what politician could conceivably take this key step? In the movies, the hero always thinks of an answer in the nick of time — something surprising but obvious, something that turns the enemy’s strength against them. So what are we going to do to turn the tide and achieve our ultimate objective: leaving four-fifths of hydrocarbon fuel reserves in place beyond this century?
I decided to take on this wicked problem by playing the Matrix Game with my PhD students. The first step of the game is to define the objective — easy. Only 250 gigatons of fossil carbon can be removed from geological deposits by the end of the century. That means a 10% annual reduction in oil production until the sustainable level of 10 million barrels per day is reached in about 2050.
The next step was to research the four most important parties and their positions, and then to hold several rounds of negotiations with teams of students representing each of the parties. The oil companies are the first key party. There are about 52 of them altogether, but we focused on the top 12. We asked, what would make them reduce oil production by 10% each year? Answer: if they could make just as much money and increase value for shareholders. One way to make more money selling less oil is to raise the price, but not necessarily by that much, because reducing the costly exploration and development of riskier, low-return plays would also increase profitability. The oil companies’ Achilles’ heel is that they’re corporations, so whatever makes more money, they must do.