Moving Beyond Fossil Fuels Before It’s Too Late

Worldwatch Institute’s State of the World 2013 discusses the challenges and opportunities presented by changing the way we produce and use energy

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JULY 23, 2013 

Global carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel energy combustion grew by 34 percent from 2000 to 2010. Leading research institutions estimate that as a consequence, global average surface temperatures will increase by between 1 and 6 degrees Celsius during this century, with the most recent estimates projecting that the high end of this warming range is the most probable if no swift action is taken. In the Worldwatch Institute’s State of the World 2013: Is Sustainability Still Possible?, contributing authors discuss strategies to overcome our dependence on fossil fuels and become strictly sustainable energy consumers.

Coal, oil, and gas predominated the 20th century as sources of fuel, and allowed human productivity to increase exponentially. Yet these same resources are now polluting the atmosphere and damaging the environment, on which we depend on for human survival. The transition away from fossil fuels is not one of convenience, but of moral and ecological necessity.

As University of Michigan professor Thomas Princen and his co-authors describe in their chapter, “Keep ‘Em In the Ground: Ending the Fossil Fuel Era,” in order to prevent disastrous environmental impacts, it is essential to stop the extraction of the vast majority of fossil fuels, and not just manage emissions, an ultimately futile effort. We should reserve the small portion that we do extract for essential uses and for building a renewable energy infrastructure.

Researchers have shown that renewable energy sources are able to fully meet the global energy demand—as is discussed in Chapter 7—but these future power supplies do take significant energy investment upfront to build.

As physicist Tom Murphy notes in his chapter, “Beyond Fossil Fuels: Assessing Energy Alternatives,” “If there is to be a transition to a sustainable energy regime, it’s best to begin it now. If society waits until energy scarcity demands an energy transition, it risks falling into an ‘Energy Trap’ in which aggressive use of scarce remaining easily-harnessed energy resources to develop a new energy infrastructure leaves less available to society overall.”

“Unlike monetary investments, which can be made on credit and then amortized out of the income stream they produce, the energy investment in energy infrastructure must be made up front out of a portion of the energy used today,” says Eric Zencey, fellow of the Gund Institute for Ecological Economics at the University of Vermont and author of Chapter 7, “Energy as Master Resource.” “Politically, the most acceptable path is to finance the energetic investment not by decreasing energy use for consumption today but by maintaining energy use for consumption while increasing the total energy appropriation of the economy. But ecologically, that most acceptable path will lead to climate catastrophe.”

Phillip Saieg, accredited professional of the U.S. Green Building Council, suggests that the quickest and most financially feasible way to lessen the amount of carbon being added to the atmosphere is by “greening” existing buildings to curb their energy demands. By doing this, building owners will save money, jobs will be created, and we will significantly lower the amount of carbon we are contributing to the atmosphere.

Whether the movement is one to keep fossil fuels in the ground, to use them much more efficiently, or, realistically, a combination of both, it is now widely accepted that the fossil fuel age must come to an end. The good news is that development of renewable energy systems is under way.

“Renewable technologies broke all growth records in recent years,” said Alexander Ochs, Director of Worldwatch’s Climate and Energy program, and contributing author of State of the World 2013. “In 2011, new investments in renewables for the first time in modern history topped those in conventional energy technologies with clean energy investments in developing countries now outpacing those in many industrialized countries. These promising trends need to be accelerated, with action on all political levels. Science tells us that global greenhouse gas emissions have to peak well before 2020 if we want to avoid the danger of major climate disruptions.”

Worldwatch’sState of the World 2013, released in April 2013, addresses how “sustainability” should be measured, how we can attain it, and how we can prepare if we fall short. For more information, visit

Authors of mentioned chapters include:

  • Shakuntala Makhijani, research associate at the Worldwatch Institute and co-author of Chapter 8, “Renewable Energy’s Natural Resource Impact.”
  • Jack P. Manno, professor of environmental studies at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry and co-author of Chapter 14, “Keep Them in the Ground: Ending the Fossil Fuel Era.”
  • Pamela Martin, professor of politics at Coastal Carolina University and co-author of Chapter 14, “Keep Them in the Ground: Ending the Fossil Fuel Era.”
  • T.W. Murphy, Jr., associate professor of physics at the University of California, San Diego and author of Chapter 15, “Beyond Fossil Fuels: Assessing the Energy Alternatives.”
  • Alexander Ochs, director of Worldwatch’s Climate and Energy Program and co-author of Chapter 8, “Renewable Energy’s Natural Resource Impact.”
  • Thomas Princen, professor of natural resources and environment at the University of Michigan and co-author of Chapter 14, “Keep Them in the Ground: Ending the Fossil Fuel Era.”
  • Phillip Saieg, accredited professional under the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program of the U.S. Green Building Council and author of Chapter 16, “Energy Efficiency in the Built Environment.”
  • Eric Zencey, fellow of the Gund Institute for Ecological Economics at the University of Vermont and author of Chapter 7, “Energy as Master Resource.”