Let’s Stop Arguing About An Imaginary Energy Transition

Energy Aware

How did adoption of renewable energy become the drug of choice to treat the disease of climate change? No one knows.

Wind and solar energy policies evolved over several decades without planning, leadership, effective communication, or stakeholder engagement. There was not—and is not—any vision, resource allocation, communication strategy, governance structure, or change management plan.

In other words, none of the elements for a successful transition have been considered or implemented. That’s why emissions and temperatures keep rising. We’re on a trip to Abilene led by a clown car of energy-blind politicians.

The oil crises of the 1970s and early 1980s—especially the 1973 oil embargo—provided the wake-up call that ignited a global push towards alternative energy sources. Governments around the world began funneling resources into renewable energy research and development. The motivation for these policies was to reduce dependency on oil by substituting some amount of renewable energy for fossil energy. Climate change and the environment were not part of the plan but were bolted onto the scheme later. Eventually full or nearly full energy substitution became the objective for those who supported an energy transition.

There was never a moment, a discussion or a decision that established renewable energy as the primary solution to climate change. It was an Abilene moment.

The Abilene Paradox describes how a group is swept by momentum into a situation that no member has thoughtfully considered.

“On a hot summer day in a small town in west Texas, a family is sitting on a porch, enjoying some fresh cold tea, when the grandfather suggests they all take a ride to Abilene for dinner. 

“The family’s father feels it’s a bad idea but is afraid to offer his opinion, so he foolishly says, ‘Sounds like a great idea to me.’ Then everyone else chimes in with their enthusiasm for the drive, and before long, they are on the dirt highway headed for supper. 

“When they return after a long, hot ride and some horrible food, the mother-in-law says, ‘That wasn’t a great trip.’ Then her daughter adds, ‘I just went along because I wanted to keep the group happy.’ The husband, who first supported the idea, says he only went because he didn’t want to disappoint anyone.”

The Abilene Paradox

Did any world leader ask if switching to renewable energy was a good idea or whether modern civilization could be sustained by electricity, let alone by intermittent wind and solar power?

Political leaders have largely taken a market approach to climate change. This means that governments have offered economic incentives in the form of tax credits, research grants and direct subsidies to stimulate markets to solve the problem. The resulting firehose of public money favors misallocation of capital for short-term corporate rather than long-term public benefit—privatize the profits and socialize the costs.

In a recent opinion article, Martin Wolf observed that market forces will probably not remedy climate change.

“At the heart of attempts to halt damaging climate change is a pair of ideas: decarbonise electricity and electrify the economy. So, how is it going? Badly, is the answer.

“The atmosphere responds to emissions, not good intentions. In 2023, the production of electricity generated by fossil fuels reached an all-time peak.”

Martin Wolf, Financial Times

It seems that our flawed proxy for a global energy policy misses a critical point: renewable energy, while beneficial, is predominantly applicable to electric power generation, which accounts for a mere twenty percent of overall energy consumption, and only about thirty-five percent of total carbon emissions. This oversight reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the broader energy needs and consumption patterns that drive modern economies.

Renewable energy advocates routinely highlight a narrow and selective set of information to create the illusion that an energy transition is moving forward with shocking speed and effectiveness. Figure 1 shows an impressive thirty-two percent decrease in U.S. CO2 emissions from electric power generation since 2006. Unfortunately, power generation is only thirty precent of U.S. emissions. What about the other seventy percent of energy consumption?

Moreover, one-third of lower carbon emissions in the U.S. is because of switching from coal to natural gas. Wind and solar have also contributed to emissions reductions, but to a lesser extent than natural gas. Wind energy accounted for about nineteen percent of the reduction, while solar contributed around four percent.

Figure 1. U.S. CO2 emissions from electric power generation have fallen 32% since 2006. Unfortunately, power generation is only 30% of U.S. emissions. Source: Ember  & Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc. <br>
Figure 1. U.S. CO2 emissions from electric power generation have fallen 32% since 2006. Unfortunately, power generation is only 30% of U.S. emissions. Source: Ember & Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.

Rich western countries like the United States, the United Kingdom and Germany have made the most progress on carbon emission reductions. Worldwide, the situation is less encouraging. World CO2 emissions from electric power generation are increasing at about 1% annually (Figure 2).

Figure 2. World CO2 emissions from electric power generation are increasing at about 1% annually. Power generation is about 38% of global emissions.
Source: Ember  & Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.
Figure 2. World CO2 emissions from electric power generation are increasing at about 1% annually. Power generation is about 38% of global emissions.
Source: Ember & Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.

But these charts only reflect electric power generation. In April, energy expert Vaclav Smil provided this perspective.

“Contrary to common impressions, there has been no absolute worldwide decarbonization. In fact, the very opposite is the case. The world has become much more reliant on fossil carbon.

“We have not made the slightest progress…We cannot expect the world economy to become carbon-free by 2050. The goal may be desirable, but it remains unrealistic.

Vaclav Smil

In fact, world CO₂ emissions and energy consumption continue to rise. Emissions have increased at twice the rate so far in 2024 as in 2022 or 2023 (Figure 3). May 2024 CO₂ concentration increased to 426.9 ppm from 421.9 in December 2023.

Figure 3. World CO₂ emissions have increased at twice the rate so far in 2024 as in 2022 or 2023<br>May 2024 CO₂ concentration increased to 426.9 ppm from 421.9 in December 2023<br>
Figure 3. World CO₂ emissions have increased at twice the rate so far in 2024 as in 2022 or 2023
May 2024 CO₂ concentration increased to 426.9 ppm from 421.9 in December 2023

Sadly, the future may be worse than historical data trends suggest.

For wealthy countries like the United States, the trajectory of carbon emission reductions is poised to level off around 2030. The Energy Information Administration (EIA) anticipates that significant cuts in CO2 emissions from electric power generation will largely cease after 2030 (Figure 4). Moving forward, total U.S. emissions are projected to stabilize, averaging around 4,000 million tons per year through 2050.

The capacity for further reductions is constrained by the finite number of coal-fired power plants that can be decommissioned. Additionally, the EIA has a rather conservative outlook on emissions cuts in the transportation sector and other areas. Despite the extensive publicity surrounding electric vehicles, the EIA forecasts that CO2 emissions from transportation will decrease only 150 million tons by 2050.

Figure 4. EIA expects an end to most reductions in U.S. CO2 emissions from electric power generation after 2030.<br>Total U.S. emissions expected to flatten and average 4,000 mm tons/year through 2050.<br>Source: EIA  & Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.<br>
Figure 4. EIA expects an end to most reductions in U.S. CO2 emissions from electric power generation after 2030.
Total U.S. emissions expected to flatten and average 4,000 mm tons/year through 2050.
Source: EIA & Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.

When it comes to global electric power, CO2 emissions are projected to climb by 600 million metric tons, or five percent, by 2050 (Figure 5). Coal, as the primary offender, will contribute an additional 590 million tons. Emissions from natural gas will also see an uptick, adding 450 million tons. On a slightly more optimistic note, emissions from liquid fuels are anticipated to drop by 424 million tons.

Figure 5. World CO2 emissions from electric power to increase 600 mm metric tons (5%) by 2050. Coal emissions to increase 590 mm tons, natural gas 450 mm tons and liquids fuels to decrease 424 mm tons.<br>Source:  EIA & Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.<br>
Figure 5. World CO2 emissions from electric power to increase 600 mm metric tons (5%) by 2050. Coal emissions to increase 590 mm tons, natural gas 450 mm tons and liquids fuels to decrease 424 mm tons.
Source: EIA & Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.

This underscores the persistent reliance on fossil fuels despite the push for cleaner energy. The larger problem is that emissions will continue to rise as long as electric power use increases. Despite a four-fold expansion of wind and solar electric power generation by 2050, world carbon emissions are expected to climb because total generation will rise 14 gigawatt hours by then (Figure 6).

Figure 6. Despite a 4-fold increase in wind and solar electric power generation by 2050, world carbon emissions are expected to rise as total generation increases 14 GWh.<br>Source:  EIA & Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.  <br>
Figure 6. Despite a 4-fold increase in wind and solar electric power generation by 2050, world carbon emissions are expected to rise as total generation increases 14 GWh.
Source: EIA & Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.

The EIA expects world CO2 levels to increase 5 billion metric tons (fourteen percent) by 2050 (Figure 7). Emissions from electric power will increase 600 mm tons but fall as a percentage of total emissions from thirty-five percent in 2023 to thirty-two percent in 2050.

Figure 7. EIA expects world CO2 emissions to increase 5 billion metric tons (14%) by 2050. Emissions from electric power to increase 600 mm tons but fall as a percentage of total emissions from 35% in 2023 to 32% in 2050.<br>Source:  EIA & Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.
Figure 7. EIA expects world CO2 emissions to increase 5 billion metric tons (14%) by 2050. Emissions from electric power to increase 600 mm tons but fall as a percentage of total emissions from 35% in 2023 to 32% in 2050.
Source: EIA & Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.

Promoters of renewable energy rarely mention its cost but never miss an opportunity to state that it’s the cheapest form of energy. It’s not but that misses the larger issue that the approach is simply not working. The energy transition is imaginary.

Energy substitution became the guiding principle of the initial renewable energy push following the oil shocks half a century ago. This approach was validated and reinforced with the advent of Peak Oil concerns in the late 1990s. The paradigm failed to evolve as climate change took center stage in the energy debate, and that is where the problem lies.

Renewables cannot sustain our current civilization. This is not a matter of opinion or preference; it’s what the data consistently shows. While renewables have the potential to supply a significant portion of our electric power and can help displace coal—the worst carbon emitter—that scenario is far from the reality we face. The future, as indicated by the data, is not aligning with the optimistic projections for renewable energy.

An aggressive program to develop a balanced mix of natural gas and nuclear for base load power should have been initiated at least two decades ago. The urgency of climate change has since closed that window of opportunity.

There’s a time for hope, but also a time for honesty. Under the current strategy of international conferences and public spending on wealth transfer schemes disguised as green deals, there is no realistic scenario for successful decarbonization.

What’s truly necessary won’t come to pass—rigorous top-down programs that make the consumer-polluter accountable for their energy consumption. It’s far too late for convoluted carbon-credit systems or tax maneuvers.

The market-based approach is already proving to be a losing strategy. The idea of simultaneously backing multiple solutions is a misallocation of resources at this point—ranging from somewhat plausible ideas like electric vehicles to wildly impractical concepts like carbon capture, hydrogen, or geothermal, which remain unproven on a large scale. In a parallel universe where planetary health was prioritized over GDP, only a direct end-user penalty would be effective.

So what’s the solution?

“We waste so much time when we rush to fixes and answers that do not meet the complexity of what is before us.”

Krista Tippett

Asking for the solution is the wrong question. The right question is, what is the truth about what is happening now? Here is the truth based on the data that I’ve presented in this post.

The current energy substitution approach has failed to achieve meaningful reductions in global emissions, primarily due to an unrealistic overestimation of renewable energy’s potential impact. This failure is compounded by the absence of a contingency plan for when renewables fall short.

The real solution lies in drastically reducing overall energy consumption. However, this won’t materialize, even if global consensus deemed it the right path. The reason is simple: there is no international coordination mechanism to plan and enforce such a sweeping change.

We need to stop wasting our time.

We need to end the futile debates about an energy transition that isn’t grounded in reality.

First, we should stop deluding ourselves with arguments over potential solutions. The only effective course of action is to reduce overall energy consumption.

Second, we must relinquish the misguided hope that governments will step in to fix the problem. Their track record shows they won’t.

Third, it’s time to abandon the fantasy that technology will save us. Technological fixes have consistently failed to deliver on their promises.

Fourth, we must cease debating the existence of climate change or environmental crises. The evidence is clear, and continued debate only delays necessary action.

Fifth, discussions about the Energy Return on Investment (EROI) of various sources are distractions from the real issue.

Lastly, we should stop fixating on which energy sources are the cheapest. This is a narrow view that ignores the broader context of sustainability and environmental impact.

The hard truth is, the path forward requires a radical shift in our consumption habits, not more debates or wishful thinking about quick fixes.

Art Berman is anything but your run-of-the-mill energy consultant. With a résumé boasting over 40 years as a petroleum geologist, he’s here to annihilate your preconceived notions and rearm you with unfiltered, data-backed takes on energy and its colossal role in the world's economic pulse. Learn more about Art here.

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21 Comments

  1. jb on July 13, 2024 at 5:44 pm

    Thank you for the article. I may not agree with everything, but appreciate the read and perspective.

  2. Mark Ellis on July 13, 2024 at 5:05 am

    The area where you lost the most credibility is that you are sucked in by the Climate Change hoax.
    Once you get past this you will be a lot more credible see: https://sciencespeak.com/
    Or read some of Professor Ian Plimer’s books.

    Climate Change is pushed by Globalist organisations like the United Nations or that club for power hungry billionaires the WEF. They do it so that people will accept their social and financial agenda under the tenuous link of saving the world from Climate Change.

    • Art Berman on July 13, 2024 at 2:44 pm

      Mark,

      I am going to block you because I’m not interested in discussing climate change with people who are intentionally ignorant. You can always fine outlier “experts” who disagree with proven science. Most of them are grifters but some also have psychological problems.

      Do you disagree with your surgeon on his techniques and qualification? Why do you think it’s different with climate experts? Any time you’d like to take the scalpel, remind me to be on another continent.

      Art

  3. DzîRan on July 9, 2024 at 1:51 pm

    Maybe if we cut consumption drastically AND replaced the electricity with renewables AND replaced a lot of the thermal energy in residential and industrial uses with directly captured solar heat (worlds higher efficiency than electric capture)… this “transition” thing would have a shot. But a looot of profits would have to be erased in the process, so the resistance is going to be huge.

    • Art Berman on July 9, 2024 at 4:02 pm

      DziRan,

      All the above options are as unworkable as the status quo.

      All the best,

      Art

  4. Robert lowrey on July 8, 2024 at 4:09 pm

    Hi Mr. Berman,

    You make my heart sing: “Public spending on wealth transfer schemes disguised as green deals” is the most cogent statement on that topic I’ve yet to see, my own being called cynical, but I really think you nailed it.

    Great piece as always. All I would add to the list at the close of your essay would be to stop these ridiculous frivolous lawsuits and the attendant finger-pointing they encourage. Their only contribution is to lawyers.

    The main acceleration of emissions growth followed from the so-called green revolution which was implemented to prove the neo-Malthusians wrong, yet it makes us all , even Pacific Islanders, beneficiaries of fossil-fueled agriculture, and as you previously pointed out, habitat destruction is probably the biggest problem we’re facing , and big-ag, especially since a growing proportion of its production is used to power machines (so much acreage has been converted in the US to grow corn to be processed into ethanol that it now needs to import wheat from Poland) is the largest source of habitat loss.

    Thanks again for all your doing to get the truth out. Speaking the truth about power seems far more important to me than speaking it to Power … especially as they already are quite aware of it.

    • Art Berman on July 9, 2024 at 4:02 pm

      Robert,

      Thanks for your comments. I don’t see legislation or regulations on lawsuits as a solution to anything except to increase complexity.

      All the best,

      Art

  5. Pogust on July 8, 2024 at 8:57 am

    Yes Art, you are correct. We will unfortunately not discuss the needed reduction in energy use, it’s not possible in the present political-economic system. No politician can do it and hope to be reelected. We will need reality to hit us hard before we accept a solution that is compatible with nature and remaining resources.

    Still I greatly appreciate your contribution to our understanding. Gradually more of us will understand and be open to a more realistic future. So keep up the good work!

    • Art Berman on July 9, 2024 at 3:59 pm

      Pogust,

      Many thanks for your comments and encouragement.

      All the best,

      Art

  6. Joe Clarkson on July 8, 2024 at 7:25 am

    “Renewables cannot sustain our current civilization”.

    Nothing can sustain our current civilization, so it won’t be sustained. The only real question is when it will cease to exist.

    As your post has demonstrated, carbon emissions are likely going to keep on rising, not fall by half in 2030 and start to go negative by 2050, the requirement needed to stay below 2C above pre-industrial average temperature.

    Considering this likelihood, it would be best if civilization ended as soon as possible, providing a dramatic reduction in carbon emissions and possibly saving a habitable climate for the trillions of people that could come after us.

    “the path forward requires a radical shift in our consumption habits”

    I’m surprised you consider this a real possibility. To me it seems less likely than a successful transition to renewables and far less likely than uncontrolled collapse.

    Four billion people live in cities, with more moving in every day. Modern cities, and the industrial agriculture that cities rely on have a minimum required energy and resource throughput to remain habitable, a flux that can never be low enough to save the climate and still be high enough to keep all those urbanites alive. A shift in consumption habits will slow the rate of accumulating damage to the environment, but it won’t be enough to begin the restoration of the ecosphere.

    Humanity has created a civilization that is trapped: it can’t function without lots of energy but can’t save the climate if it uses the energy it needs. The only way out of humanity’s horrific overshoot is mass death, but I don’t think that’s the way you meant the “radical shift” to occur.

    • Art Berman on July 9, 2024 at 3:58 pm

      Joe,

      I didn’t suggest reduction of energy use as a policy proposal.

      The universe will impose a radical reduction in energy use by a combination of declining ecological conditions, credit contraction, war, increasing complexity and populist destruction of governing institutions.

      All the best,

      Art

  7. Jon Traudt on July 8, 2024 at 2:18 am

    My only disagreement is about energy return on energy invested, commonly abbreviated as EROI. A vast amount of oil, natural gas, and coal resources in the ground will never be used as fuel because whenever it takes more energy to get a unit of fossil fuel out of the ground than that unit contains, extraction for use as fuel stops.

    • Art Berman on July 9, 2024 at 3:54 pm

      Jon,

      You make the same error made by many who read opinions but don’t work the data. There is no evidence that oil and gas will be stranded in the ground because of low EROI or the price of extraction.

      EROI is an elegant model that works poorly in the real world except at a very high conceptual level.

      All the best,

      Art

  8. John DY on July 7, 2024 at 10:08 pm

    Art, What is RHS?

  9. AA on July 7, 2024 at 3:29 pm

    It really hits home for me how much energy is in oil when I run my chainsaw or use my little tractor to move things ,for literally 4 cents I can cut a stack of wood that with a hand saw would take 2 days.
    I see all the monster F350s cruising around and you realize that the amount of energy being used cant be replaced.
    I have a solar array but you always have to be aware of weather conditions use in off hours etc.
    The average person is used to just use as much energy as they can with no awareness
    It’s almost sad something so special like fossil fuels have literally been squandered.

  10. Gavin Longmuir on July 7, 2024 at 2:30 pm

    This is only half-right, Art. Rather than shutting down any questioning of the ClimateScam, we should expose the foolishness of hypothesized Anthropogenic Global Warming to genuine scientific scrutiny. Reality is that we human beings have only a minor effect on global climate which has been continuously changing since the planet formed. In the distant future, temperatures may go up … or they many go down (Ice Ages). Either way, our descendants will need more energy.

    Further, while it is reasonable to talk about advanced economies reducing their energy demand, there are billions (BILLIONS!) of human beings today living with the horrible consequences of inadequate energy. It is immoral to abandon those human beings to permanent poverty. They need an increase in global energy consumption.

    What’s the answer? As Marion King Hubbert (the peak oil guy) pointed out in the 1950s, the answer is massive adoption of nuclear fission. We have the technology, we could do it now. In fact, China and Russia are already on the road to big expansions in nuclear power. But we can choose to be poor and immoral, if we so wish.

    • Art Berman on July 9, 2024 at 3:49 pm

      Gavin,

      Your position on climate change is based on Paleolithic ignorance. Don’t waste my time or further comments will be sent to spam.

      Art

  11. Edward Downe on July 7, 2024 at 2:10 pm

    Complete summary of the unfortunate facts that nobody wants to hear.
    As you and Nate Hagen have discussed, governments are soothing over the real problem (of overshoot), by kicking the can down the road via borrowing and running deficits. Now governments are waking up to the consequences of their huge debt overhang. They are forced to talk realistically about the need to raise taxes and cut services (not in the US just yet, but coming up soon I think). The result: demonstrations by the small guy, who can least afford either, some violent. Adding to the disfunction which runs through this post.

    • Art Berman on July 9, 2024 at 3:47 pm

      Edward,

      Government policies offered by left and right are based on the same flawed Neo-classical economic model. I’m less concerned about public than private debt and low debt productivity. Raising taxes will be inevitable. Public dissatisfaction has been strong and growing for 15 years–declining prosperity fueled by populist opportunism are the main causes.

      All the best,

      Art

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