Interview. The historian and author published an essay, ‘No Transition,’ that’s making waves in France. ‘It is taken for granted that the energy transition is going to take 50 years. Thus, the inevitability of the transition has become an excuse for inaction in the short term.’

Jean-Baptiste Fressoz: The myth of the energy transition

The book-length essay Sans Transition. Une Nouvelle Histoire de L’énergie (“No transition. A new history of energy”) published by Jean-Baptiste Fressoz, a historian of science and professor at the School of Advanced Studies in Social Sciences in Paris, is making waves in France.

The work, published by Seuil and not yet translated, takes up Fredric Jameson’s famous saying, “It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism” and takes it one step further: “It’s easier to escape capitalism than the fossil fuel economy.” At the same time, the necessity and possibility of an energy transition to zero-emission sources seems the only viable path.

It would seem that we are looking at a repetition of what has already happened with lumber, coal and oil: every 50 years, each of these replaced the previous one and became the dominant energy source, as the graphs in energy history books show.

Now it will be the turn of clean energy sources, right, Professor Fressoz?

Those graphs describe the percentage corresponding to each energy source as part of the total energy consumed. It was only in the 1970s that energy history began to be recounted in such relative terms. Before that, absolute values – that is, how many tons of wood, coal or oil are consumed – were used to evaluate the use of the various sources. And if you look at the absolute values, you will realize that there is no energy source for which one can speak of a “peak,” and that none of them has ever stopped growing in terms of consumption. Coal could be number one in a few years. So far, there has never been an “energy transition” from one source to another on a global scale.

Instead of “transition,” you speak of energy “symbiosis.” What does that mean?

This is the other point that needs to be stressed in the historiography of energy. The sources have been seen as separate entities: at first the dominant one was timber, then it was replaced by coal, which was in turn succeeded by oil. But this narrative obscures the correlations between the curves, which show a much more marked intertwining of the various energy sources: for instance, coal was crucial to producing all the steel made necessary by the oil-based economy. And, in turn, coal depends on lumber: the UK consumed more carpentry lumber in 1900 than it burned in 1800. So the different sources are in symbiosis with each other. There is also symbiosis regarding products, where the different raw materials are increasingly intertwined. We are gaining in energy efficiency through increasingly complex products that are, however, increasingly difficult to recycle. This is happening with smartphones and similarly with electric cars. And the problem of this symbiosis is growing.

Why do we think today that an energy transition is actually possible?

This idea owes a lot to an Italian scientist, physicist Cesare Marchetti. In the 1970s he was among the first to apply the so-called “logistic” curves to energy transitions, according to which many phenomena follow an “S”-like progression. Consider the spread of an epidemic: at first the growth is slow, then it accelerates in the middle phase and finally plateaus. Marchetti thought this could also be applied to the use of energy sources, and nowadays he is criticized for this mechanistic view of energy history. But it is interesting to note that Marchetti brought up S-curves to explain the fact that the emergence of a new technology or energy source is not so quick because it takes decades to defeat the inertia of an industrial system. Compared to his contemporaries, who thought a rapid transition was feasible, he was considered a “pessimist” because he predicted that only by the year 2000 – a date that was far off into the future – would we be able to do without coal. His prediction was belied by the facts. The most pessimistic voice of the 1970s now appears too optimistic to us.

The energy transition challenges the profits of large energy-intensive industries, doesn’t it?

Although it seems counterintuitive, industry is comfortable with the slogan of the energy transition. Today, all big companies are promising to move toward carbon neutrality. The one who started it was Edward David, Exxon’s director of research and former scientific adviser to Nixon, who in 1982 posed the question in these terms: the greenhouse effect is undeniable, but what will come first, climate disaster or the energy transition? Climatologists argued that the first effects of global warming would be felt in the early 2000s, and that the situation would become catastrophic around 2080. On the other hand, it is taken for granted that the energy transition is going to take 50 years. Thus, the inevitability of the transition has become an excuse for inaction in the short term. The economist and Nobel laureate William Nordhaus even theorized a postponement of the transition to as late as possible so that it could be achieved with the more advanced technologies that would certainly arrive by then. The widely held view was that self-fertilizing nuclear reactors would be developed soon.

Has the myth of the energy transition served to push aside other strategies to combat climate change?

One only has to read the latest IPCC Group III report: some 3,000 scenarios were examined and not one of them even considers degrowth. It is strange that on the one hand they talk about an existential crisis, but do not even admit this as a hypothesis. The energy transition allows one to imagine a growing economy without emissions, and this buries the issue of wealth redistribution. It also does not allow for an assessment of the value of the goods we produce: cement, a high-emission material, can be used to positive effect for infrastructure in developing countries or for superfluous goods in the rich world, but such a discussion is not permitted. In the beginning, the IPCC Group III consisted mainly of economists, and now they are mainly model specialists. We are entrusting the problem to experts and excluding citizens from the debate.

Is there such awareness among the environmental movements? Many environmentalists also talk about the energy transition.

Yes, most movements have long argued that technology alone will not solve the problem of climate change. But there are many neoliberal-minded environmentalists who have embraced the rhetoric of the transition, going all in on solar energy. The problem is that we are realizing that decarbonizing the economy is a much more difficult task than the transition to renewable energy.

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