Editorial: For fossil fuels, evidence of the end is mounting

  • Ray Kurzweil in 2005. AP

Published: 8/29/2019 8:30:11 AM

Last week, BNP Paribas, the world’s eighth largest bank, announced that it is ending all investment in fossil fuels.

“We conclude that the economics of oil for gasoline and diesel vehicles versus wind and solar-powered EVs (electric vehicles) are now in relentless and irreversible decline, with far-reaching implications for both policymakers and the oil majors,” Paribas said in its announcement.

Is the bank right, and how soon might the transition happen?

Ray Kurzweil, futurist and inventor of the flatbed scanner, the first print-to-speech machine, a musical synthesizer and more, made many predictions, including this one in 2001: “We won’t experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century, it will be more like 20,000 years of progress (at today’s rate).”

Technological progress proceeds at an exponential rate as new tools like artificial intelligence create even better tools quickly, Kurzweil said.

The batting average of the former MIT professor, now director of engineering for Google, is good. Trackers say that 115 of the 147 predictions Kurzweil has made since the 1990s have proven to be essentially accurate.

If Kurzweil is even half right, technological change and its impact on the world’s economies, the nature of work, advances in medicine and alternative energy will occur far faster than most people and policymakers realize.

The pace of climate change is also proceeding far faster than scientists expected, and the race between technologies that will slow climate change and the continued or even increased burning of fossil fuels is happening on many fronts.

The fires burning in the Amazon rainforest – the lungs of the planet – are being set largely by farmers and cattle ranchers bent on expansion. The planet is home to nearly 1 billion cows, each of whom makes multiple contributions to climate change daily. Meanwhile alternatives to meat are multiplying, improving and winning consumer favor at a rate that alarms the beef industry.

Word is that Concord’s Burger King restaurants are selling as many plant-based Impossible Whoppers as beef Whoppers.

And a spokesman for German automaker Volkswagen said, earlier this month, that the day when its electric vehicles reach price parity with internal combustion vehicles is only a few years away.

The tipping point that slides gas and diesel vehicles toward history’s trash heap is approaching. Charging stations will replace gas stations.

Reinhard Fischer, head of strategy for Volkswagen in North America, told attendees at the Center for Automotive Research in Detroit this month that range anxiety has now been replaced by charging anxiety.

“A hundred years ago, gasoline was sold at pharmacies,” Fischer said. “Today we have 122,000 gas stations in the United States. It’s transformed from a bottleneck to a commodity. Electric charging is going to be exactly the same.”

When it comes to transportation, to compete with energy from solar and wind power, according to the French bank Paribas’s analysis, “the long-term break-even price for oil for gasoline to remain competitive as a source of mobility is $9 to $10 per barrel and for diesel $17 to $19 per barrel.”

After bouncing around in the $60 range, yesterday’s price for a barrel of crude was $55.68.

The lower the price goes the less it makes sense to drill for oil in the Alaskan wilderness and other environmentally sensitive places. The faster meat alternatives replace beef the less need for the slash-and-burn agriculture that worsens climate change and threatens the survival of many of the Earth’s species.

Let’s hope Paribas, Volkswagen and Kurzweil are right.

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