Revised 1 December 2023

After 200 years of unabated growth in populations and consumption per capita enabled by burning fossil fuels, we now face a wicked problem that has no easy solution. We need to immediately reduce our use of fossil fuels in order to mitigate the impact of climate change and avoid the risk of triggering tipping points which would result in an irreversible cascade of climate change leading to a hot-house Earth.

In an industrial society, we are totally reliant on high-grade energy for our survival, so we need to transition from fossil fuels to high-grade renewable energy and infrastructure. Investment in and manufacturing of high-grade renewable energy and infrastructure such as photovoltaic panels and wind turbines requires the use of energy and materials. We will need to continue using fossil fuels during an initial transition to renewable energy and infrastructure because our current level of renewable energy sources is insufficient.

Reducing our use of fossil fuels is imperative in order to mitigate the impact of climate change. We therefore have no choice but to divert use of fossil fuels from unnecessary and frivolous consumption to investments in renewables and infrastructure within a limited and reducing budget of fossil fuels. This applies especially to the well-developed countries like New Zealand.

Renewable energy cannot scale up to the same energy levels per capita that we currently enjoy in the well-developed countries because photovoltaic panels and wind turbines requires the use of increasingly scarce minerals which in turn takes increasingly more energy to mine. We have already mined the low hanging fruit of minerals which are highly concentrated.

We will need to learn how to live well on a much-reduced budget of energy during and after a transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy and infrastructure. It is possible to do this because much of our current consumption of energy in the form of goods and services does not lead to greater well-being. It is as supportive localised communities that we can continue to thrive.

What is possible will not happen unless we face up to realities and respond to the urgent need to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions without delay. The longer we delay in reducing our use of fossil fuels, the greater will be the accumulations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and the subsequent increasing risk of irreversible climate change.