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The World After Oil

That the world is going to change its energy model is already out of the question. The only question is whether or not it will do so in time to avoid ecological disaster.

Nobody has the answer but, according to energy expert Daniel Yergin, there is an essential factor to increase the chances of success and that is the recognition of the difficulties and inertia of a planet that, 85%, continues to feed on hydrocarbons.

Between 2010 and 2019, and despite a gigantic reduction in the costs of renewables, hydrocarbons only lost 1% of their weight in the world economy.

“In 2050 there will continue to be cars that run on petroleum derivatives, ” Yergin told EL PAÍS during a Skype interview. 1992 Pulitzer Prize Winner for his History of Oil, where he describes the fabulous energy and geopolitical transformation that black gold brought to the 20th century, Yergin this year has published

The New Map (Allen Lane, 2020), an analysis of the consequences that on the international economic order will have the progressive abandonment of hydrocarbons.

Some of his theses sound familiar, such as that China will win due to its advantages in the manufacture of photovoltaic panels, batteries and electric cars. But others are less heard, such as that covid-19 could act as a hindrance to that energy transition.

“There is uncertainty about the financial resources for public investment that this transition requires , considering that we are going to need a lot of money to recover from this terrible pandemic,” he says.

Faced with the widespread idea that the big green stimulus packages will help the planet and the economy at the same time, Yergin asks for prudence and detail. There are more job-generating destinations for public money, such as installing solar panels on roofs, creating charging points on roads, or improving the insulation of buildings.

But, according to Yergin, an important part of this green stimulus would inevitably have to go towards research in new technologies, an activity that does not generate so many jobs: “It has to be this way because currently there are no technologies necessary to reach the goal of neutrality in emissions in 2050 ”.

Energy transitions take time, Yergin writes in The New Map, citing coal as an example: First used in 1709, it took two centuries before it became a more popular fuel than wood. The same was true for oil, which took a century (from 1859 to the 1960s, he writes) to surpass coal.

But those were transitions led exclusively by technological change and in the current one we must add the component of a public opinion alarmed by global warming . Another difference, although now in the form of an obstacle, is the powerful lobby exercised by the oil, chemical and automotive industries to delay it.

According to Yergin, not all companies can be judged by the same standard. Oil companies of American origin are clinging to their traditional business, but those of European origin, he argues, have a plan to convert themselves into “energy companies”:

“And they will be necessary because, if we really want to transform the economy, we will need companies who know how to execute big projects ”.

From the book and the conversation of this expert the feeling emerges that a realistic attitude must recognize our limitations to leave hydrocarbons behind, but can we be realistic if we do not recognize the limitations of our economic model?

At this point, Yergin’s response resembles that of Big Oil. “That is why I think we need other technologies and I emphasize the need for technologies to capture carbon from the atmosphere,” he explains. “If we are going to continue using oil and gas, and it is difficult to understand how we could not do so, there will have to be new carbon capture technologies that we have not yet developed,” he appreciates.

And what will happen to geopolitics when oil finally stops moving the world? Will the global economy go from shaking with every OPEC meeting to shaking with China’s lithium production decisions?

As Barack Obama’s former National Security Council adviser Jason Bordoff wrote in Foreign Policy magazine, that supposed power will be nothing compared to what oil exporters have wielded so far – to emulate them in a world of renewable energy. , you should be able to cover the sun or stop the wind.

But no longer depending on oil represents a formidable shift in current balances of power. One of them, Yergin writes, is the one that maintains Beijing’s concern for the South China Sea. China imports 75% of its oil, he explains, and needs to guarantee access to the Strait of Malacca. In a world where hydrocarbons are not so essential, this path also loses geostrategic relevance.

The other side of the coin is that increasing energy independence also means having fewer reasons to get along with your fuel suppliers, of which there are many US producers. And China is one of the few issues where the US Democratic Party does not differ too much from the Republican.

“The two sides see it as a strategic rival,” Yergin says. Does the end of oil then increase the risk of conflict? The answer is not entirely reassuring: “China is going to keep importing a lot of oil for a long time.”

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