In two previous articles, I have written with optimism about encouraging trends in global efforts to tackle climate change. In Climate is Back I wrote that “climate is news again” and the shift in public attitudes about putting a price on carbon. In Turning the Corner on Climate Change I said that “the world is listening.”
The Chilling Reality of the Climate Challenge
In his recent article in Rolling Stone, Al Gore argues that humanity is on the right track. He is confident that “a powerful largely unnoticed shift is taking place.” But the enormity of our climate challenge is daunting and a sobering reminder that, as the old saying goes, we have miles to go before we sleep.
I am reminded daily of the chilling reality of the climate change challenge from what I see and read in the media and what I see just outside my window – the California drought, wildfires, the rising price of food, fracking, tar sands expansion, the Koch brothers, irresponsible world leaders such as Stephen Harper (Canada) and Tony Abbott (Australia) who are willfully blind to the detrimental effects of fossil fuels.
The following charts illustrate the obvious hurdles to overcome in our shift away from fossil fuels to the lower carbon future available from renewables.
Global Energy Use by Source
Fossil fuels provide 87 percent of the world’s energy; this number has not changed since 1999. There has been no progress in moving to a lower carbon world according to BP’s Statistical Review of World Energy 2014 which paints a gloomy picture of the global energy crisis. Although clean energy continues to make great strides forward, fossil fuels are growing even faster. Clean energy gains are being nullified by the growth of coal in China. Unless this changes drastically, the world will not succeed in reducing carbon emissions.
Carbon Intensity of World’s Energy
Carbon Intensity measures the amount of CO2 emitted per unit of energy used. It’s a measure of how clean the global energy system really is. Robert Pielke Jr. of the University of Colorado observes ” the above graph indicates that in the 21st century, whatever gains are being made by low carbon energy technologies, they continue to be equaled or even outpaced by continuing gains in fossil fuels.”
If humanity wanted to boost its energy use by 50 percent and cut carbon-dioxide emissions by 50 percent, then the carbon intensity of energy would need to fall to one-third of what it is today.The entire world’s carbon intensity would have to fall from 2.76 tons of CO2 per unit of energy down to 0.9 tons or so. That’s a notch below the carbon intensity of Norway (0.99 tons).
Global Coal Consumption on the Rise
The United States is aggressively targeting the coal industry with the scheduled closure of hundreds of coal plants. The Associated Press reports “more than 32 mostly coal-fired power plants will close and another 36 plants could also be forced to shut down as a result of new EPA rules regulating air pollution.”
In 2012, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) reported that 175 coal-fired generators were slated to be retired before 2016 (primarily in 2015).
Although coal burning continues to decline in America and Europe, coal use has skyrocketed in Asia, which is growing fast and is now responsible for 70 percent of coal consumption. China now consumes 50 percent of the world’s coal. Hence the reductions in coal consumption in one part of the world are more than offset by increased use in another part of the globe.
Carbon dioxide emissions from energy on the rise
As the global consumption of coal rises, so do the CO2 emissions and so does the temperature of the planet. It will be impossible to tackle the global warming unless there is a sudden fundamental shift from fossil fuels to low-carbon alternative energy sources. In spite of all the good news stories from the clean-tech industry, the shift to date is almost unnoticeable on a global scale.
I’m bewildered when a country like China is the world leader in the construction of coal-fired power plants on the one hand, and also challenging for number one in the world in the clean energy sector on the other. It appears paradoxical and incompatible.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration predicts a 56 percent increase in the world’s use of energy between now and 2040 due primarily to the insatiable Chinese and Asian appetite for additional energy. And yet, by 2050 humanity will likely self-destruct unless it has weaned itself off fossil fuels. That is the existential test of our times.
Is it possible to replace fossil fuels with alternative energy sources while still meeting the needs of a world economy focused on perpetual economic growth and a desire to adopt the Western lifestyle of over-consumption?