From Energy Transition to Energy Reduction

With the wholesale price for US crude oil famously, if briefly, turning negative recently, and – slightly less famously – with commenters in a thread under my last post suggesting that it’s technically straightforward to transition the existing energy system largely to renewables, it feels the time is right to address some post-lockdown and post-carbon energy realities. Let me state my three-part thesis upfront:

  1. It is not going to be easy technically or in any other way to transition the existing energy system to a low carbon one
  2. This means there will be profound changes in human societies over the coming decades
  3. It serves no sound purpose to dismiss the implications of (1) and (2) as ‘apocalyptic’

A recent paper published in Nature Climate Change and reported here seems corroboratory of my thesis in concluding that “merely adding new technologies is unlikely to bring the climate challenge under control, unless we also deliver behavioural, cultural and economic transformations” and that “technological promises allow those benefitting from the continued exploitation of fossil fuels and the comfortable lifestyles it enables to justify those practices to themselves”.

But let’s get going with a few facts and figures. Cautious estimates like those of the IPCC suggest that we need to cut greenhouse gas emissions by about half within a decade and to net zero by 2050 if we’re to avoid global average temperature increases in excess of 2oC over preindustrial levels at century’s end, at which point the consequences of global heating are likely to be severely detrimental to human wellbeing (and the wellbeing of many other organisms).

GHG emissions are mostly caused by the combustion of fossil fuels (oil, natural gas and coal), so a key necessity for climate change mitigation is to transition the global energy economy out of fossil fuels. And the fact is, this hasn’t yet begun to happen. Globally in 1965, we consumed energy to the tune of 3,485 million tonnes of oil equivalent (TOE) from fossil fuels. By 2018 that figure had leapt to over 11,700 million TOE. And we can’t blame all this on population increase. In 1965, global fossil fuel use was 1.05 TOE per capita, whereas in 2018 it was 1.55.

These figures show that, far from a transition out of fossil fuels, our use of them has been amplifying. True, our use of lower carbon energy sources has increased at a faster rate than fossil fuels, to the extent that in 2018 the proportion of global energy consumption contributed by fossil fuels was ‘only’ 85%, whereas in 1965 it was 94%. But since we need to be sharply reducing fossil fuel use rather than increasing it, as at present, this is cold comfort. And most of the low carbon energy sources we’ve added since 1965 have been high-cost nuclear and hydroelectric projects with questionable environmental implications and limited potential for roll-out beyond a handful of countries. Only 4% of current global energy consumption comes from sources other than nuclear, hydro or fossil fuels.

This picture is set to change dramatically in the short-term with the Covid-19 crisis. Plummeting energy demand has hit the fossil energy sector disproportionately, which I’d suggest is partly because fossil fuels disproportionately service the non-electricity sector, and partly because once renewable capacity is installed the sun, wind and water that powers it cost nothing. But it would be misleading to conclude that the Covid-19 crisis is fostering an energy transition. If and when normal activity returns, so will fossil fuel use. Some people are saying that the fossil energy downturn we’re currently seeing due to Covid-19 could become the new normal. To me, that seems fanciful unless the new normal also encompasses the end of economic growth, the end of urbanization and the end of intensifying global economic linkage – and even then it may not be enough to reduce GHG emissions adequately. I’ll touch on those issues some more below, and in my next post, I hope. In the meantime, I’d suggest the present short-run decline in fossil energy use does not a renewable energy transition make.

Maybe not, the argument sometimes goes, but why look downheartedly backwards at how the energy economy has unfolded up to now when, Covid-19 or not, there are reasons to look optimistically forwards towards an impending energy transition? I guess I’d find it easier to endorse this view if there was actually any evidence that one is underway – though bearing in mind that we probably need to cut emissions in half within ten years, it’s quite possible that an energy transition that starts today is still going to be too late. I’m also mindful of Professor McLaren’s view in the Nature Climate Change article I mentioned: all this heralding of game-changing technologies that are just around the corner may amount to little more than greenwashing of current high energy lifestyles.

But let’s try to get a bit more of a handle on the energy transition that’s needed. Take a look at this table:

 

Year – 2018 GDP/capita (US$) Fossil energy consumption (TOE per capita) % Energy consumption from fossil fuels
USA 62,790 5.94 84
Australia 57,400 5.33 92
Canada 46,230 6.04 65
UK 42,940 2.29 79
Malaysia 11,370 2.97 94
China 9,770 2.00 85
South Africa 6,370 2.01 96
Indonesia 3,890 0.67 96
Vietnam 2,570 0.71 79
India 2,010 0.55 92
Bangladesh 1,700 0.22 99
World 11,310 1.55 85

Source: BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2019 and World Development Indicators

….Of course, there’s a logical flaw in my statement above that to cut fossil fuels by half we’d need to install an equivalent amount of solar capacity. Instead, we could cut fossil fuels by half and not replace them with anything. Once we start thinking in terms of decreasing energy use, a new world of possibilities opens up. This, far more than any low carbon energy source du jour, is surely the real game changer.

So, looking again at the table above, let’s forget the 6.0 TOE of fossil energy used by each Canadian resident, or the 2.3 used by each UK one, or the 2.0 by each Chinese one or the 1.55 used by the ‘average’ citizen of the world. Let’s aim for something lower – very much lower, in the case of some countries. Can we achieve it just through efficiency savings? If so, please show me how. Because really I think the debate we need to be having, which is badly overdue, is what kind of different world a low energy world would look like. What kind of farming would we have? What kind of industry? What kind of health and social care? What kind of settlement patterns? MORE

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