Extremely Slow Progress Converting to Renewables In Face of Huge Increase in CO2 Emissions: What Are the Trends?
By Frank Thomas and John Lawrence
Part 3 can be found here
Parts 1 and 2 address the psychological denial mechanisms and economics behind the world’s ingrained obsession with increasing GDP rates, despite their environmentally cancerous impact. Naturally, developing countries want the same material benefits from boundless GDP growth and unlimited resource development that advanced countries have long been exploiting.
This abets the idea that, as long as people make money from despoiling the atmosphere and climate, the Market should have its free reins forever. The Market is assumed to be the best arbiter of our planet’s ecological stability, but that is patently false. In reality, the Market exploits the environment and now it is becoming clear that increasing population and economic growth fueled by fossil fuels do so as well.
The problem is we humans are collectively so busy polluting and proliferating Earth’s air, land and oceans at a speed and scale unheard of even in geological time frames that we can’t imagine or we are simply ignoring the oncoming train of environmental destruction.
While many positive advances in renewables are being made, rising coal, natural gas and energy demand outweigh any reductions from recent strong growth in renewables in a few countries. Renewables and hydro are still a TINY 9% of primary energy consumption today (Table 5) (9% for China, 7% for India – Table 6). They are forecast to be a TINY 20% of energy consumption in 2030 and no more than 25% in 2040.
The US Energy Information Administration (EIA) forecasts the same weak growth in renewable electrical generation shares reaching a miniscule 22% in 2015 and 25% in 2040 (Table 8).These weak shares explain why EIA and others expect CO2 emissions to soar ahead from 36 billion tons today to over 50 billion tons in 2050 (Part 2 of this series: Table 1).
Part 4 addresses how FAR we have to go to reach a hydro-renewables mix of 70% of global energy consumption by 2050 (Table 8). Cataclysmic global warming can only be stemmed by considerably speeding up practical community-based and disruptive technically-based solutions for sustainable fuels, energy efficiency and lifestyle adaptations (that reduce energy demand) like Scandinavia, Germany, and California are remarkably doing in their own way – without disturbing economic growth.
Tables 7a/7b show Scandinavia already gets 41% of its primary energy use and 65% of its electricity generation from hydro-renewables. When including nuclear, Scandinavia’s primary energy was 56% decarbonized and its electricity generation 88% decarbonized in 2013. Many countries would be pleased to be in this position in 2050! Germany’s electricity was 35% decarbonized in 2013 rising to 44% in 2014. California’s electricity was a promising 35%decarbonized in 2013 … thanks to wind energy. This share can be increased significantly by accelerating solar PV (photovoltaic) applications.
With strong industrial economies, they are showing it’s possible to succeed in uncoupling economic growth from dependence on carbon-intensive fuels. Over past years, these regions have been experiencing growing economic activity, falling greenhouse gases and electricity prices.
In 2014, Germany’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and electric power usage declined and wholesale electricity prices fell to a record low while the economy grew 1.4%. Germany’s CO2 emissions are a small 3% of global emissions vs. 28% for China and 15% for the U.S.
Scandinavia, Germany and California have resisted the temptation to consider renewable energy sources as merely modest and not dominant contributors to energy supplies and energy security. Barring a quick way to bury carbon safely and effectively – a path Germany and Scandinavia feel is reprehensibly risky, if not a geologically impossible solution – these countries have accepted that coal reserves must be drawn down slowly during the 2015-2050 conversion phase to renewables and hydro. Researchers at the University College London have calculated that 88% of coal reserves must stay buried after 2030. This means oil usage must be cut 16% and coal 60%.
Response by the fossil fuel giants? In NO WAY is this ever going to happen.
Recent oil industry commentary summarily dismisses as ‘unrealistic’ any idea hydro-renewables can largely replace 70% of fossil fuels by 2050 and avoid a CO2 earth-warming spiral and mega environmental disaster. Oil firms are one voice in reassuring investors that fossil fuel reserves will be the dominant energy source throughout the 21st century.
- BP’s sustainable report says the concept of unburnable carbon ‘overstates’ the potential financial impact on the value of its oil reserves. In brief, fossil fuels are a necessity and will still be supplying 80% of global energy consumption in 2030 and after.
- Shell’s CEO Ben V. Beurden also asserts that rising energy demand – especially in China and India – will preserve the value of its assets. In his view, “At most, renewables (i.e. sun, wind, biomass) will be supplying 15-20% of global total energy consumption in 2035. After all, less than 1% of total primary energy comes from sun and wind sources today.”
- This of course ignores the fact that sun, wind and biomass (excluding hydro) provided 17% of Germany’s primary energy consumption and 21% of its electricity generation in 2013 (Table7b) rising to 27% in 2014; wind provided 39%of Denmark’s electricity in 2014; California and a few states are generating 10-24% of their electricity from wind and 2-6% from solar energy. Shell’s CEO sees low-carbon natural gas as vital to CO2 reduction when it begins to replace dirty coal – although gas-fracking does produce very toxic methane leaks. BUT, most forecasts show coal’s 40% share of global electrical generation barely changing in the next 35 years. Thus, Shell’s CEO supports a high carbon tax on CO2 emissions to make natural gas competitive with coal and speed up technical development of carbon capture and storage.
- Chevron’s CEO John Watson has recently remarked, “We are going to be in fossil fuels for a long time.”
- Exxon has told investors, “We are now confident none of our fossil fuel reserves are in danger of being stranded”
In short, the oil industry is saying the world cannot survive without a heavy dependence on fossil fuels … despite worsening climate change taking place as cumulative atmospheric CO2 levels trend dangerously above IPCC’s 2050 budget of 1.9 trillion tons (Part 2: Table 1).
Coal and oil are about 75% of global CO2 emissions and 65% of global primary energy consumption. Over 2 billion people in developing countries, many using polluting, unsustainable traditional biomass, will get electricity for the first time in coming decades – electricity produced mainly from burning dirty coal. And these people have contributed the least to causing climate change.
This is just another reason why renewables and energy efficiency solutions must be globally shared and installed rapidly on a grand scale – especially in China and India that combined account for 34% of global CO2 emissions. More than 80% of global energy increase by 2035 will come from non-OECD countries like China and India that are heavily dependent on dirty coal.
When examining Table 8, be aware it took 16 years for renewables to go from 0.5% of primary energy use to a tiny 1.1% in 2006; 7 years to double to a tiny 2.2% in 2013. Now renewables have just 35 years to rise 40 times the 2013 level to 60% of primary energy use in 2050 – as Table 8 dramatically illustrates.
The speed and scope of this transformation to renewables are critical in light of the extraordinarily short geological time frame and scale in which human-generated CO2 emissions and destructive change are occurring. The world is in a stair-step race to convert to 70% hydro-renewables to avoid irreversibility of disastrous climate change and + 4°C temperature rises by 2050.
The obstacles to implementing renewables at this rate seem insurmountable what with oil companies and politicians supported by oil companies bound and determined to exploit to the full measure all the fossil fuel resources in the ground today. As long as GDP becomes the sine qua non of economic development, it’s hard to see how oil companies can be persuaded to “keep it in the ground” when so doing would seemingly decrease GDP.
However, as Germany and Scandinavia have shown, decreasing fossil fuel usage can actually lead to an increase in GDP. Economic conventional wisdom is on a collision course with the long term survival of Mother Earth particularly a planet that humans could survive on.
Can the Climate Withstand the Onslaught of Capitalism?
Naomi Klein author of “This Changes Everything, Capitalism vs the Climate,” has placed her hope for fighting climate change in civil disobedience such as the efforts of the Rosebud Sioux who have called passage of legislation regarding the Keystone pipeline an act of war. In her book she calls this “Blockadia”:
Blockadia also stretches into multiple hot spots in Canada … For instance, in 2013 … a remarkable standoff was playing out in the province of New Brunswick, on land claimed by the Elsipogtog First Nation, a Mi’kmaq community whose roots in what is now eastern Canada go back some ten thousand years. The people of Elsipogtog were leading a blockade against SWN Resources, the Canadian subsidiary of a Texas-based company, as it tried to conduct seismic testing ahead of a possible fracking operation. The land in question has not been handed over by war or treaty and Canada’s highest court has upheld the Mi’kmaq’s right to continue to access the natural resources of those lands and waters – rights the protesters say would be rendered meaningless if the territory becomes poisoned by fracking toxins.
Celebrities such as Mark Ruffalo are also becoming part of Blockadia as fracking impacts on their beautiful estates. In a recent email, Ruffalo stated:
A ban on fracking in Maryland would set a strong example for elected officials around the country, one that promotes informed choices based on sound, independent science and places constituent safety and well-being first. What happens in Maryland impacts all of us.
The time to ban fracking is now.
Note that fracking has already been banned in New York state and there is a movement afoot to get it banned in California and other states as well.
Fossil fuels are not only causing damage by releasing CO2 into the atmosphere. Oil trains transporting millions of gallons of oil are derailing and burning towns and polluting rivers and aquifers. Oil pipelines also are breaking and leaking their effluent into America’s aquifers. Will the American people rise up and put an end to this insanity? Time will tell.
Some scientists believe that what happened on Easter Island will happen to life on earth as a whole. Eminent Australian scientist Professor Frank Fenner, who helped to wipe out smallpox, predicts humans will probably be extinct within 100 years, because of overpopulation, environmental destruction and climate change
Fenner said that climate change is likely to be the cause of our extinction. “We’ll undergo the same fate as the people on Easter Island,” he said. More people means fewer resources, and Fenner predicts “there will be a lot more wars over food.”
Polynesian people settled on pristine Easter Island around the middle of the first millennium AD. The population grew slowly at first and then exploded. As the population grew the forests were wiped out and all the tree animals became extinct with devastating consequences. Around 1600 the civilization began to collapse, and had virtually disappeared by the mid-19th century.
Evolutionary biologist Jared Diamond said the parallels between what happened on Easter Island and what is occurring today on the planet as a whole are “chillingly obvious.”