12 people who can save the world

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

July 2019

Words by Susan Krumdieck

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.

Illustration of an oil well

"Surprise! Our unlikely heroes are the CEOs of the 12 major oil companies. They could lead the production retreat — in fact, their corporate objectives require that they do"

The International Energy Agency is the next key party. The IEA’s purpose is to avoid a repeat of the oil shocks of the 1970s by ensuring cooperation between its 29 member countries. Would it help to manage the retreat? According to the IEA’s latest World Energy Outlook publication, not addressing climate change now with international collective action will cost four to five times more than the action itself. So it would accept the retreat — if it was announced at least 12 months in advance to enable all countries to adapt without causing demand destruction or recessionary pressures. The retreat would also require stable price mechanisms and policing to avoid black markets or excessive profit-taking, something the IEA has the capability to establish.

The third key party is the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), whose goal is economic growth among its 36 member countries. Its secretary-general has stated that low-emissions transition must happen very quickly and that it cannot be achieved without positive feedback between governments and non-state actors. So would it help to develop policies and agreements for the oil production retreat? Yes: the economic stimulus from developing new technologies and services to achieve the transition would more than offset the negative aspects. The OECD is well-equipped to provide analysis and oversight to set a stable oil price and negotiate national policies and priorities.

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The last key party is the United Nations. The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) collectively works to form agreements between 197 member countries. The COP21 agreement sets the target of limiting greenhouse gas emissions to keep global warming below 1.5ºC this century. Would it set up a new Coalition of Oil Producers (CoOP) to negotiate and manage the oil retreat? Yes it would, and it could. Most of the oil companies are affiliated with a country, and the UN is already practised at holding negotiations and setting up international expert panels. The initial 10% retreat could be announced at the first CoOP meeting — let’s call it CoOP1 — which would set a global oil price for a 12-month period. The UN could also establish an International Panel on Transition Engineering to collect and analyze data on adaptation measures.

Of course, it could be hard for the oil company CEOs to agree to the retreat in the first place without sufficient financial and engineering analysis. As a pre-emptive move, the Global Association for Transition Engineering, together with five of the world’s leading universities in this field, would set up an International Transition Innovation, Management and Engineering Research Collaboratory (InTIME RC) to support this work. It would rapidly train transition engineers in all disciplines, to research the most beneficial and profitable transition projects and to feedback into strategy development. Within 12 months, it could devise a basic framework for the retreat as the foundation for the CoOP1 meeting.

Surprise! Our unlikely heroes are the CEOs of the 12 major oil companies. They could lead the production retreat — and because saving the world is more profitable than overheating it, their corporate objectives require that they do.

The odds aren’t that bad: just 12 people could save the world. But could we transition to a world that uses less oil? If we know we have to, it’s completely possible. We may not even need to do very much for the first year because waste, inefficiency and optional behaviours in personal transport account for as much as 30% of oil use. But we know that there’s going to be 10% less oil again the next year, and the next. That’s the catalyst we need: suddenly all of the viable conservation and efficiency projects in the “too hard” basket move to the top of the to-do list. We can recolonize our cities from cars. We can design and demonstrate no-travel conferences. Airline companies can transition-engineer reduced schedules. Single-use containers and disposables can be transition-engineered out of existence. Only about 15% of global oil consumption goes into food production, and we know we’re wasting nearly half of that food. So many uses of oil are just for our entertainment, but if there was a market for people to have a good time without oil, somebody would fill it.

How can the economy support all of this transition? The oil companies are the unlikely heroes again. As the oil price goes up, they will have money to spend. In the past, they have spent it on further exploration and development because oil was the most lucrative investment. But transport and trade, not oil, is the real foundation of the economy. So in the era of the oil retreat, why wouldn’t the oil majors get into the business of building trams, transit-oriented development and railroads? Their engineering, project management, procurement and planning capabilities are directly transferable to downshift projects. The transition economy may be about using less of everything, but it still creates good returns for investors because there are so many projects we need to do.

The parameters of our mission are simple, obvious and doable, and failure to tackle climate change is not an option. The oil production retreat is impossible, but it’s what we’re going to do. I invite expressions of interest from any oil company that would like to help set up the InTIME RC. Today would be good.

Susan Krumdieck is a professor at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand, director of its Advanced Energy and Material Systems Lab, and co-founder of the Global Association for Transition Engineering

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