Tackling the social and political impacts of fossil fuel industry decline


Energy is indispensable to human existence. It has played and will play a crucial role in shaping our society. In the pre-industrial era, biomass was the dominant energy source. However, its share in the energy mix fell after James Watt invented the coal-driven steam engine in 1769. The first widespread use of this efficient steam engine was to pump water out of coal mines, making coal seams easier to access, enabling expansion of coal extraction and use. The advent of coal and the steam engine also led to the expansion of the iron, cotton, and steel industries.

This transition from biomass to coal has happened across the world at different times, although a large number of people, especially in Asia and Africa, still rely on biomass as their main energy source. So, what has happened when the use of biomass contracted? Did new, coal-based energy systems and infrastructure change anything else? Did this change in energy system lead to other societal changes?

The answer is a clear yes. As coal became the dominant energy source in the late 19th century, and industrialization spread, many people left agriculture and other occupations and migrated to cities to become factory workers. This occupational shift was widespread. New factory worker’s wages were much higher than their previous earnings as farmers which led to an increase in consumption, which resulted in higher demand goods and services, further supporting industrial growth.

On the other hand, when hydrocarbons such as oil and gas started dominating the global energy mix in the 20th century (coal continues to remain an important energy source), they propped up new centers of global power and created new world politics. Harnessing and producing energy using coal, oil and gas not only brought new infrastructure but also shaped our geopolitics and society.

Over the last four decades, societal demand has grown for countries to replace fossil fuel-based energy with renewable energy. This time, the shift is not being driven by some new technological innovation leading to a better energy source. It is being driven by climate change science, which makes it clear that burning fossil fuels is causing dangerous global warming. Apart from the climate change concerns, huge investments in renewable energy technologies by national governments and global companies and increasing health and environmental concerns are other factors pushing this shift away from fossil fuels. It is clear that to solve climate change we not only need to expand new energy industries but also close old ones. Expectedly, countries are reacting differently to this pressure. Several countries are creating policies to expand their renewable energy production and use. Some governments are also taking steps to retire the incumbent fossil fuel industries.

Given the deep-rooted linkage between energy production, infrastructure, society, and politics, possible declines in any fossil industry (or industries), will likely change society yet again.

The good news is that scholars from the Centre for Climate and Energy Transformations (CET) at the University of Bergen, Norway and the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), Vienna, Austria and have now come together to study what a decline in fossil fuel industries would mean for the world. Their newly launched project, ‘Contractions,’ will focus on the social and political consequences of declining fossil fuel industries, and research policies that can help make the decline less painful.

As part of the project, CET and IIASA held a stakeholder meeting about the social and political impacts of declining fossil fuel industries. The meeting took place in Bergen, Norway, and featured key stakeholders from industry, the investment community, governments, and academia. In the meeting, stakeholders agreed that a good first step for research in this area would be to identify past and current cases of fossil fuel industry contraction, nationally. This will be a valuable research as it will allow us to understand where exactly the contractions are happening and at what rate.

Today, coal extraction and use are in long-term decline in many parts of the world, especially in North America and parts of Europe. While overall global production or consumption numbers may not appear to indicate that coal is declining, looking closely at individual countries clearly shows a declining trend for the above-mentioned places. For example, the United States (US) has witnessed a decline in coal mining and the use of coal for domestic power generation. By 2016, overall coal production and consumption had declined by approximately 30% from 2000 levels. This led to closure of several coal mines, especially in the Appalachia region, and power plants in many parts of the US. The revival of coal looks unlikely, given low shale gas prices and the decreasing cost of renewables. In addition, coal is considered the dirtiest of all energy sources, especially from a climate perspective, which makes its revival harder. Conversely, the story of oil and gas is not as clear and needs investigation that examines long term historical data for different countries. Even for the US, it would be interesting to see long term data to gauge the coal industry contraction rate.

Next, research could focus on the social and political consequences of past and current coal industry declines. Historically, coal workers have been a strong political force, and alienating them may undermine countries’ efforts to make progress in tackling climate change. When workers lose jobs, they may be more sympathetic to parties and politicians who promise to revive their industries. This phenomenon is currently being played out in Alberta. Jason Kenney, the leader of Alberta’s United Conservative Party, has promised that if he is elected, he will stop the planned closure of coal-fired power plants in the province.

Another novel idea that emerged during discussions was to study the impact the post-2014 decline in oil prices had on workers and communities dependent on oil extraction for their livelihoods. This could provide a snapshot of what may happen to workers and their communities in the event of future oil industry contraction. Stakeholders discussed two examples during the meeting – the Norwegian oil industry and the Alberta, Canada oil sands.

Lastly, analyzing and evaluating the effectiveness of state and non-state actor’s policies and programs that address the impacts of fossil fuel industry decline would be a significant research contribution. How can coal workers and their communities survive when coal mines are closed? What kind of training is required for coal workers to find new work? Are government policies and compensation adequate to help coal workers and their communities transition? In what industries can coal workers find new employment?

The answers to these questions have the potential to help shape and improve policy and lives of real people. They will also provide a framework for future research regarding other energy industry declines. If we are serious about achieving our climate goals, and want to make a global shift from fossil fuels to renewables less painful, it is time to start grappling with these issues.