The role of fossil fuels

While our aim is to reduce as rapidly as possible the share of fossil fuels in the world primary energy supply, substantially reducing the amount of energy consumed and deploying renewable energy sources will take time. What can the role of fossil fuels be during this transition period and how can they contribute to help in achieving a transition aimed at their disappearance?

Furthermore, is the objective to widen and diversify fossil fuel sources reconcilable with the need to reduce CO2 emissions? Considering only coal, its proven reserves presently amount to around 900 billion tonnes, which means that 3700 billion tonnes of CO2 will be produced, if this coal is consumed. This is much more than the total emissions of carbon which might be acceptable during the next fifty years, if we want to keep to the objective of a mean temperature increase below 2 °C.

Three reasons have to be taken into account for maintaining substantial efforts in the area of fossil fuels:

- As has already been mentioned, fossil fuels will keep a significant share of the primary energy supply during the whole transition period. Even if their consumption is greatly reduced, it will be necessary to satisfy the demand, without any sudden breakdown in supplies. The problem to solve is not related to the absolute level of reserves, but rather to the production level to be maintained during the whole transition period.

- It is necessary to diversify supply sources, in order to reduce the risks and especially the geopolitical risks which become critical if the number of suppliers is small.

- All fossil fuel energy sources are not equivalent. Natural gas leads to CO2 emissions per unit energy produced which are much smaller than those which result from the use of coal.

It would be therefore very detrimental if a short term tension on hydrocarbon supply leads to a rapid and massive shift towards coal, especially before the technology of CO2 capture and storage becomes operational.

To secure the supply of fossil fuels, a first imperative condition is to reduce their consumption, as discussed in Chapter 5. It is also important to avoid a breakdown of the supplies during the transition period. Finally, it is necessary to diversify the supply sources and to favour those which have the smallest impact on the environment.

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