The impossible trinity at the heart of net zero
Governments face an impossible trinity if they wish to meet the net zero carbon energy transition - how to balance energy security, affordable energy and environmental sustainability.
There have been five energy transitions in the modern age. Each transition involves the transformation of energy sources into economically useful applications as a result of technological improvements. First coal, then electrification, followed by crude oil and natural gas, and then most recently the development of renewable energy alternatives. Energy transitions typically take place over a period of decades - 50 years or more based on historical evidence.
Previous transitions were typically determined by the market. New demands (such as transportation) led to the development of specific fossil fuels that could deliver on that demand. Naturally, government’s helped shape that transition (through subsidies, war’s fought on the grounds of energy security), but the demand was ultimately led by the need to satisfy the unsatiated desires of the end consumer.
The net zero energy transition is different. This represents the first energy transition to take place whereby we are moving towards a less dense energy source. This latest energy transition has been, and will continue to be, a state led energy transition. It is also vital to understand that this transition is the first where the speed at which we move to zero carbon is moving much faster than earlier transitions, dictated as it is by the imperative to reduce the risk of catastrophic climate change.
The fabric of the existing economic, political and social order is unlikely to remain as it is given the huge demands that we are placing upon it. That is the crux of the zero-carbon impossible trinity.
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