Historical analysis finds no precedent for the rate of coal and gas power decline needed to limit climate change to 1.5°C

Limiting climate change to the 1.5°C target set by the Paris Climate Agreement will likely require coal and gas power use to decline at rates that are unprecedented for any large country, an analysis of decadal episodes of fossil fuel decline in 105 countries between 1960 and 2018 shows. Furthermore, the findings, published October 22 in the journal One Earth, suggest that the most rapid historical cases of fossil fuel decline occurred when oil was replaced by coal, gas, or nuclear power in response to energy security threats of the 1970s and the 1980s.

Decarbonizing the energy sector is a particularly important strategy for reaching the goal of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, which is necessary in order to prevent global average temperatures from climbing beyond 1.5°C this century. However, few studies have investigated the historical precedent for such a sudden and sweeping transition — especially the decline of carbon-intensive technologies that must accompany the widespread adoption of greener ones.

“This is the first study that systematically analyzed historical cases of decline in fossil fuel use in individual countries over the last 60 years and around the world,” says Jessica Jewell (@jessicadjewell), an associate professor in energy transitions at Chalmers University in Sweden, a professor at the University of Bergen in Norway, and the corresponding author of the study. “Prior studies sometimes looked at the world as a whole but failed to find such cases, because on the global level the use of fossil fuels has always grown over time.”

“We also studied recent political pledges to completely phase out coal power, which some 30 countries made as part of the Powering Past Coal Alliance. We found that these pledges do not aim for faster coal decline than what has occurred historically,” adds Jewell. “In other words, they plan for largely business as usual.”

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