Betting the World on an Imaginary Energy Future
Government leaders tell us that the world is moving toward a renewable energy future. At the recent COP 28 climate meeting in the United Arab Emirates, those leaders agreed to a transition away from fossil fuels to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.
COP 28 was the thirty-sixth international climate conference at which some version of that message was sent and yet carbon emissions and temperature continue to increase.
Since the first World Climate Conference in 1979, carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions have increased 18 gigatons (+93%) per year (Figure 1). Emissions have risen 15 gigatons (+61%) per year since the first COP meeting in 1995.
Is the popular energy transition narrative valid or is it imaginary?
The world used almost 180,000 terawatt hours of primary energy in 2022. Less than 5% of that was from wind and solar. That’s not a lot to show for total investment in renewable energy of more than $16 trillion over the last twenty years.
Perhaps the truest thing to come out of COP 28 was a signal that present levels of renewable investment will need to triple if we’re going to limit global heating. That means that renewable investment has to increase to between $2.5 to $4 trillion per year from an average level of $0.8 trillion per year over the last 20 years, and $1.3 trillion per year over the last decade.
How will the world pay for that? For reference, the global cost of the 2008 Financial Crisis is estimated at $2 trillion.
It’s difficult to see any evidence that an energy transition away from fossil fuels is happening based on the data in Figure 2. The previous transition from biomass to fossil fuels indicates that transitions are additive. In other words, the world uses as much biomass today than it did in 1800 but the percent of total energy consumption is smaller because of the growth of fossil energy.
That suggests that the world will not use much less fossil energy in a few decades—it will merely add more renewable energy on top of present levels of consumption. That’s not a solution and is also the reason that carbon emissions haven’t decreased over the last two decades.
Coal use increased 24% over the last fifteen years compared to the previous 15 years. Speculative projections for its future decrease do not offer much comfort in the face of global heating urgency.
The popular energy transition narrative is mostly good news. If we just substitute renewables for fossil fuels, life goes on more-or-less as before—just with more electric cars, solar panels and windmills. Sure, there will be challenges but those are mostly about getting the necessary commitments from world governments to make the transition.
The truth is that much of the net zero roadmap is based on technologies that do not exist today.
“I am told by scientists that 50% of the reductions we have to make to get to net zero are going to come from technologies that we don’t yet have.“U.S. Climate Envoy John Kerry
Another problem is that energy consumption and global temperature correlate strongly over the last 120 years (Figure 3). Fossil fuels accounted for almost 80% of energy consumption in 2022 and optimistic projections for its future decrease are speculative. We don’t have decades to do something about global heating. Projections don’t affect that sense of urgency because they are based on guesses using technologies that don’t exist today.
In fact, carbon emissions, GDP, population and society’s ecological footprint all correlate with energy consumption (Figure 4).
That means that there is a cost for lower emissions. Unless the future is somehow completely different from the past and present, the only solution to climate change is a radical reduction in energy consumption. Lower economic growth and a lower population will be unavoidable components of a renewable energy future. That’s not part of the transition narrative.
That said, carbon emissions from renewable energy are lower than from fossil fuels even including the fossil energy that goes into mining, manufacture and transport of wind and solar machines. The problem is that we cannot replace fossil energy fast enough because we waited too long to begin. Civilization’s energy splurge must end.
“Solar panels and wind turbines can power a perfectly good civilization for quite some time, just not this one.”DJ White and NJ Hagens
Do world leaders understand this and the charts in this post?
If they don’t, it makes sense that they might mistakenly believe that a renewable energy future is possible in time to reverse the effects of global heating.
If they do, it helps to explain why they continue the charade of annual climate conferences without telling the public the truth.
A renewable energy future is probably well beyond the climate-change window of urgency. The plan to substitute renewable energy for fossil fuels hasn’t changed the upward march of carbon emissions.
Is that plan reasonable or are we betting on an imaginary energy future?
At what point do we call their bet and force our leaders to show us what’s in their hand?
Like Art's Work?
Share this Post:
Read More Posts