energy transition

We have to turn the page

In "Le Crépuscule fossile", her latest book, Geneviève Férone-Creuzet returns to the subject of oil, the energy that has been shaping our civilization for a hundred years as the absolute master of geopolitical, economic and financial trade-offs. All of which should shed light on our difficulties in changing our era at the dawn of the 21st century.
Delphine Masson: Why change the way we produce and consume energy?
Geneviève Férone-Creuzet The most structuring reason is the climate. Fossil fuels, whether gas, oil or coal, emit greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change. Yet they are omnipresent. All the world's fleets - car, air, road, sea - emit them. Fossil fuels are needed for agricultural production, for food, clothing, medicines, to run factories... All of this is extremely emissive and damaging to the environment.
DM : Can we talk about a climate emergency ?
G.F.C.: There is an emergency, but it is long term. However, by the end of the century, climate change experts are unable to situate the amplitude of climate change on a scale of 2 to 6°C. This uncertainty is partly due to the unknown nature of the greenhouse gas reduction policies that will be applied. And these policies depend on the representations that one makes of the seriousness or not of the threat. We have locked ourselves in and thrown away the key.
DM : We are however the last generation to be able to act...
G.F-C. Humanity has never been confronted with a change of such magnitude attributable to human activity. It is in fact an intergenerational responsibility. That is, what we, our generation, are doing today can help limit climate change for future generations. The longer we delay, the less we take hold of the problem, the worse it gets. We are indeed the last generation that can act, as Ban Ki-moon, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, explained, but we will unfortunately not be the last of the fossil civilization.
DM : The shortage of oil is nevertheless announced. Isn't that another reason to change ?
G.F-C. The studies point to a peak in production around 2030 and then a decline from 2060 onwards, but this is essentially conventional oil, the kind that is easily found by digging in the ground. It is typically oil from the Middle East, Iraq, Algeria, the United States and the Caspian Sea that has been largely siphoned off. But there are reserves of unconventional oil that must be found deeper in the ground, under the oceans, or in the oil sands. So far, the announcement of oil shortages has mainly pushed mankind to dig deeper. Or to turn to coal, which is more accessible and better distributed over the surface of the globe. So we come to a societal, even moral, equation. Of course, it is possible to siphon off any remaining pockets of gas and oil. But for which résultats ? An extension of 100, 150 years? These reserves are in fact a real climate bomb that can sweep us away. It is better not to wait for the last drop of oil to move. We have to turn the page.
DM: Not easy, you say, to do without it. You compare us to drug addicts in need...
G.F-C. This is especially true for companies like ours that do not have oil. Our dependence is impressive. All we have to do is blockade the refineries and the country is completely paralysed. And sometimes we go very far to find our drugs. Withdrawal is hard to imagine. But it will have to be organized.
DM : You also speak of oil as a curse?
G.F.C.: Oil has been in many ways a blessing for the last century. It has eradicated certain diseases. It has profoundly improved our well-being and our standard of living in every way. But it has also fostered population growth, a society of cars, abundance and over-consumption that today weighs on our environment and has led to the disappearance of interesting alternative and sustainable lifestyles. The curse is also the curse on oil-producing countries caught up in total dependence and an extremely violent geopolitical game.
DM : Which country for example ?
G.F.C.: Take Venezuela. This country has everything, but its people live in great misery. Despite a left-wing government, oil money is not being redistributed at all. We see infants in hospitals sleeping in cardboard boxes! Apart from Norway, there is not, to my knowledge, a single oil-producing country that has been able to implement redistribution policies while at the same time investing in other industries. In other words, by planning for the next move. On the other hand, the common feature of these countries is that they have a corrupt ruling class. Such economic interests are at stake. And there is such external pressure from banks, oil companies, governments.
DM: Oil has also given rise to what you call the fossil aristocracy?
G.F-C. Or the oil lords. The most impressive of them is Rockefeller who built his fortune on the first oil exploitations and created a real empire taking advantage of all the uses of black gold in many sectors: automotive, armament, petrochemicals, health... This aristocracy benefited from a form of rent, so easy and so juicy. It has been a kingmaker. Governments were made and defeated because of oil interests. It has completely configured world geopolitics.
DM : Regardless of the country's political regime, oil seems to have the same devastating effect?
G.F.C.: It's very clear with Venezuela. Oil drives people crazy. It's not me saying it, it's the first secretary general of OPEC who was Venezuelan. He also said: "Oil is the devil's shit". He wanted to create OPEC to free himself from the Western fossil aristocracy. But even OPEC, which was first created under close American supervision and eventually escaped American control, has completely failed to create a democratic and transparent form of governance. In fact, the opposite is true. Its rules are extremely opaque. We know absolutely nothing about how prices are set or about the real state of oil reserves. We are totally dependent on a resource about which we know absolutely nothing.
DM : You give a psychological explanation to this dark side of oil?
G.F-C. Oil gives super power to super heroes who have been able, thanks to it, to transform the world. It allows us to assert the supremacy of man over nature, to inscribe it in the idea of progress with its eternal desire to surpass, dominate and go beyond. All this at such a speed that man and nature no longer walk together in good understanding. Nature is overwhelmed, crushed. We have created a monster that escapes us.
DM : You also come back to the brakes that prevent us from getting out of this fossil civilization. What are they ?
G.F.C.: Those who transformed society through oil were pioneers, conquerors who took absolutely incredible risks. There are no greater Conservatives today. They are completely fossilized, with an army of lobbyists who are incapable of thinking about change. And a new ennemi : climate change. There is certainly a form of denial. It's hard for these fossil lords to think of themselves as bad when they have shaped progress. Above all, there is the will not to let go of the rent that has made them so rich and powerful. And yet we want to tell them "live with your time"! I quote in my book the words of Rockefeller's great grand-nephew explaining that if his great-great uncle were to return today, he would be investing in the new Eldorado of the 21st century: renewable energies.
DM : Do you perceive evolutions ?
G.F-C Since the writing of my book there has been the Paris Agreement. It does not give any direction or method, but its value is invaluable psychologically and politically. It is a real turning point, an inflection in the international consensus of governments. The challenge now is to move fast enough to find economic models that demonstrate the profitability of renewable energies. To do this, the transition period must be as short as possible.
DM : How to go faster ?
G.F-C I believe in the absolutely crucial role of finance in accelerating the changeover, not for altruistic reasons, but for reasons related to the displacement of rent and economic interests. If the world's biggest financiers, the banks, the big insurance companies and pension funds start to say that investing in fossil fuels is a penalty for future returns, this will send out a strong signal and encourage the development of renewable energies. Supporting the old model involves risks. The market for fossil resources is very volatil ; disruptions linked to climate change can lead to disruptions or lawsuits that are detrimental to financial players.
DM : So it's all a question of will and choice?
G.F-C. It's certain that if we put as many subsidies and as much money to build the nuclear park today as we do to build the renewable park, we'd get there! In mobility too, we could easily achieve a fleet of electric cars or cars running on biogas and hydrogen. But only if the electricity is of non-fossil fuel origin. In China, electric cars run on coal. That just shifts the problem. Absolute consistency is needed from start to finish, from extraction to processing. There could also be financing in Africa for hydroelectricity. This continent has incredible potential but very little exploited.
DM : Is the solution political ?
G.F.C.: The framework is political, but not the solution. Manufacturers need a great deal of visibility and stability, not least because their investments are long-term and they need to guarantee high rates of return. That is why the Paris Agreement is important. It is also up to governments to introduce elements of constraint, such as a carbon tax and positive subsidies to promote access to and installation of renewable energies.
DM : Can nuclear power play the same role as oil ?
G.F.C.: It is not, strictly speaking, a fossil energy even if it depends on uranium, nor is it a renewable energy even if it does not emit CO2. Its field of use is limited to electricity. It has nothing to do with oil, therefore, except that nuclear power is also a sign of superpower and can hardly be considered a resource of the future. It is a centralized energy of the present which is and will be part of the energy mix of the transition. That's it! Nuclear power does not cause the same disruptions as fossil fuels, but the entrance ticket to build a nuclear power plant is absolutely monstrous, as is the ticket to dismantle it. As for radioactive waste, its lifespan is counted in hundreds of thousands of years. From Chernobyl to Fukushima, nuclear power is not reassuring. What has plagued it is the original sin of the atomic bomb, even if civil nuclear power, built on a culture of responsibility and safety, has nothing to do with the military.
DM: With renewable energies, we are moving towards decentralised energy management. Who will have the power in the post-fossil society?
G.F-C. That's the whole point! We are moving towards a world that is more horizontal and freer than one can imagine peaceful, benevolent, egalitarian and equitable. We can also tell ourselves that the new economy of tomorrow is going to create new monopolies, particularly those of the digital society, which will pave the way for what I call the algorithmic dictatorship. It is clear that Google and Uber are not intended to enrich the entire planet, but to enrich their shareholders. In the end, we remain in the same good old system of monopoly and rents. Only the players change.
DM: Optimistic?
G.F-C. : If we fail to distribute resources fairly and move towards a more peaceful and egalitarian world, we will be moving towards the increased man living above ground, in greater power and immoderation. Transhumanism cuts the umbilical cord that connects us to the earth, a land that no longer exists because we have transformed it. It recreates artificial lifestyles and modifies man to allow him to live at any condition of temperature and pressure. It is clearly this new world that is taking shape. The question is whether we really want to transform our environment to such an extent that it becomes a completely virtual world. We are, once again, the last generation to be able to ask ourselves this question.
DM : So it is our relationship with nature that is also at stake in the energy transition ?
G.F.C.: With renewable energies, we are moving towards a more peaceful society. Imagine, for example, that "mini grids", i.e. small solar power stations, are being set up in Africa. With them, a village can run a water pump, a school, a small hospital, but also cultivate its land. These are all people who will not go and congregate in the slums or migrate to Europe. We must give this type of transition a chance.
Interview by Delphine Masson, Journalist UP' Magazine
About Geneviève Férone-Creuzet
A pioneer in social and environmental rating and a specialist in sustainable development, Geneviève Férone-Creuzet founded Casabee in 2013, a strategy and foresight consulting firm specializing in collaborative and circular models. Partner of Prophil, a strategy consulting firm dedicated to the convergence of philanthropic and economic models, she is the author of several books including "2030: the Ecological Krach" (Grasset 2008), "Bienvenue en transhumanie" with Jean-Didier Vincent (Grasset 2011) and "Crépuscule fossile" (Stock, 2015).
Photos from the book "Kuwait: A Desert on Fire", by Sebastião Salgado ( Taschen Edition )

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