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.

From The Possible, issue 05

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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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7 comments on “12 people who can save the world

  1. Sue Ryter on

    Dr. Susan Krumdieck, you have just saved the world. All the world needs is a direction.. a possibility… and you have spelled it out!
    The time is NOW!

  2. anna carr (otago) on

    Fantastic Susan. I found a commentary by Ron Mader with examples of hosting online conferences using real time Twitter:https://www.tourismindustryblog.co.nz/2012/05/would-you-engage-in-a-conference-online-rather-than-attending/

    Are there any other useful links out there for best practice/experiences managing no-travel online conferences or case studies of how to host these (ie any software packages like Zoom that can pull in numerous attendees online???) – I couldnt find any that weren’t a sales pitch for software or about online abstract submission/registration…
    would love to collate some actual online academic conference examples.

    • Susan Krumdieck on

      I am not aware that the conference industry has yet developed a “product” for no-travel conferences. This is actually a current Transition Engineering R&D project.
      In 2010, I had the idea of holding a national conference in NZ about what transition looks like. It was called “Signs of Change” and you can still visit the website to see how the no-travel conference was organised, and to get our research paper that describes the design and the results – i.e. 1000 times lower emissions than if all the participants from 7 sites in New Zealand had taken the national air carrier to Christchurch. When we were organising Signs of Change we could not even find an example of a no-fly conference, let alone the design for it, the technology or an organising company.

      This year 21-22 November (2019) there will be another no-fly conference in New Zealand. It is called “Transition Engineering Convergence”. We are working on the design right now if you want to be involved!

      When we

  3. Jill Cooper on

    This is fabulous in its simplicity and effectiveness. I wholeheartedly applaud you. Now what can we do to help.

    • Susan Krumdieck on

      Thanks so much Jill,
      You ask a very good question. There is another article in the first issue of The Possible that explores the question, what if we knew what was going to happen, how could we change the future? (https://www.the-possible.com/changing-course-of-future-with-transition-engineering/)
      The first dilemma that we run into in the story is: how do you even get in contact with the one person who, with one realistic decision, could change course and save the ship?

      Somebody out there in this world would know how to get ahold of the right person at the UN to invite the CEO’s of the top 12 oil companies to a meeting to discuss what they would need to know in order to consider The BigDO (which is my shorthand for the project of planned oil production retreat).
      I believe that a research institute should be set up right now to start the investigations, gather the data and work on engineering the production retreat for oil companies. It is going to take a lot of know-how. The oil companies could easily fund this engineering-business Oil Transition Institute so that they get the support they need to get it right. Somebody out there knows a person in a major oil company that we could talk to about setting up and getting the best minds and eager young people in to form the OTI.
      I know that once this signal that oil production retreat is a reality gets out, there will be a huge demand for Transition Engineering. Somebody out there knows the president of a university or of an engineering professional organisation, and could set up a discussion about how the most effective way would be to teach Transition Engineering to all of the practicing professionals and how many university programmes are needed to support it.
      What can people do to help?
      First, join the Global Association for Transition Engineering as an Affiliate. The bigger the membership, the louder the voice. Second, talk to any engineer you know about joining the movement. Third, find out if somebody you know is a person who can get a meeting with one of the few people who can save the world, and we will help them to get started.


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