Is energy transition just a myth ?

In an article published in 2022, the French historian Jean-Baptiste Fressoz questions the idea of energy transition and how it has been built as  a specific view of the future of energy in a determined context. He shows that there has never been any transition at all.

The two first energy transitions : a false history

Fressoz demonstrates that the two first transitions – from wood to coal for the first transition and from coal to oil for the second transition – aren’t shifts from an energy to another one. In fact, wood has not replaced coal and coal has not replaced oil. On the contrary, for each “transition”, the former energy has been used in a symbiotic relation with the new one so as to increase its production. Fressoz then speaks about energy accumulation rather than transition.

Energy forecasters fueled the concept of energy transition as a way to serve their view of a future led by energy, technology and capitalism

 The energy transition idea comes mainly from American neo-malthusianists not for environmental purposes but rather in order to face the increasing population and the scarcity of global resources that would eventually lead to a Third World War. This imaginary mainly comes from the nuclear energy lobby which fueled the idea of an energy crisis so as to get more funding for its reactors. The energy transition energy then emerged in the political sphere in the 70s with the American President Jimmy Carter – in his April the 18th 1977 speech in the White House – for a third transition to new energy sources like solar energy.

With the introduction of the idea of transition also came a new way of representing energy mixes. Instead of being represented in an absolute way – as it used to be in the second half of the XXth century – energy experts started representing it in a relative way which contributed to this false idea of substitution of sources.

Energy transition has therefore not been created to address the problem of climate change but rather to fulfill the interests of different energy companies, politicians or even NGOs. In fact, Fressoz shows that the imaginary was that transition would precede the climate change catastrophy[1].

Are we in the way of a real energy transition ?

Energy transition has not been made until now. In fact, the 21st century is as much the era of wood as it is to coal, natural gas, and oil with China having burned more coal in 2010 than the whole world in 1980.

Even though energy transition has never been really acted and comes from an old-fashioned view of the world, it is now necessary to think the energy systems history not as phases according to a capitalistic view but rather as accumulation. With this past in mind, it is now possible to really address the question of a real transition which has to be thought with the central idea that an energy consumption cannot completely be replaced by another one or, at least, not in a short period of time…

Source : Jean-Baptiste Fressoz. La “transition énergétique”, de l’utopie atomique au déni climatique ,USA, 1945-1980.Revue d’Histoire Moderne et Contemporaine, 2022

[1] The first American Climate Act of 1980 made an hypothesis that transition from fossiles would be done in about 50 years.

A propos de Ugo POLIGNONE