The World Could Phase Out Fossil Fuels Within a Decade

environment renewable energy fossil fuels
A heating station chimney is seen through a hole in a steel wall at a construction site in Beijing December 2, 2014. A new study has found that the world could stop using fossil fuels within a decade. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

The G7 leading industrial nations pledged last year to phase out fossil fuels by the year 2100. While the announcement by German Chancellor Angela Merkel was hailed by environmental campaigners as historic, a new study claims the feat could theoretically be achieved by 2026.

Researchers at the University of Sussex found that, if the right measures were put in place, the world could completely transition away from fossil fuels in less than a decade.

"Energy transitions have no magic formula," the study, published in the journal Energy Research and Social Science, states. "Moving to a new, cleaner energy system would require significant shifts in technology, political regulations, tariffs and pricing regimes, and the behaviour of users and adopters.

"Left to evolve by itself, as it has largely been in the past, this can indeed take many decades. A lot of stars have to align all at once. But we have learnt a sufficient amount from previous transitions that I believe future transformations can happen much more rapidly."

Fossil fuels, the biggest contributor to greenhouse gases, have been steadily losing ground to clean energy solutions, such as wind and solar, in developed nations. This has been helped by significant cost reductions in technologies—solar dropped in cost by around two-thirds between 2009 and 2014. However, a separate study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) earlier this year found that only new taxes on carbon emissions will cause society to shift its reliance from fossil fuels.

According to Benjamin Sovacool, director of the Sussex Energy Group at the University of Sussex and lead author of the study, the need to switch to renewable energy sources is of "paramount importance." In technical terms, it could be achieved swiftly with strong intervention from governments and industry.

Despite the potential for such a relatively quick transition, the research claims that the practicalities of actually achieving it mean it would never happen that fast in reality. They also suggest that fossil fuels will never fully be replaced as a source of power.

The study concludes: "Given these attributes of complexity, timing, and causality, most energy transitions have been, and will likely continue to be, path dependent rather than revolutionary, cumulative rather than fully substitutive.

"Older sources of energy—such as muscle power, animate power, wood power, and steam power—still remain in use throughout the world today, they have not entirely been replaced by fossil, nuclear, and modern renewable energy."