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Forget the headlines, we’re burning more fossil fuels than ever

Barely a week goes by these days without someone claiming that this or that country ran entirely on renewable energy.  But these claims are more about lulling the population into a false sense of security than any realistic appraisal of either national or global energy use.

Even Britain’s recent coal-free day turned out to be a publicity stunt timed to coincide with Earth Day rather than a genuine reflection of the country’s energy mix – the stunt was achieved by discounting imported electricity and by ramping up the output from gas and wood-burning power stations to substitute for coal.  In any case, even then the “coal-free” claim applied only to electricity, which accounts for just a fifth of the UK’s total energy consumption… considerably less if we were to include the energy burned in Chinese factories to manufacture our imported consumer goods.

Even so, the story goes; massive investment in renewable energy and electric vehicle technologies is at least weaning us off fossil fuels.  This, perhaps, is the greatest denial of all within the climate change debate.  At a global level, wind and solar combined account for around one percent of our energy (hydroelectric and old fashioned wood and dung burning account for the bulk of renewables).  As Barry Saxifrage in the National Observer notes:

“To address the twin threats of climate change and ocean acidification, nearly every nation has promised to reduce fossil fuel burning.  But so far, humanity keeps burning ever more. Last year we did it again, burning an all-time record amount.

“The increase wasn’t particularly large, but it wasn’t particularly small either. In fact, it was right in line with the 1990s average. And the nineties certainly weren’t anyone’s idea of a retreat from burning fossil fuels. Nor were they a turning point in our fight against climate change or ocean acidification. The 1990s were business-as-usual.”

The problem is that the global economy – with its need for infinite growth – has an insatiable demand for energy that is growing faster than solar and wind farms can be deployed; with the result that renewables are merely an addition to our energy mix.

We might reasonably argue that had we not added solar and wind power to the mix, we would have burned even more fossil fuels.  That is undoubtedly true, but it is little consolation to the under-40s among us who are going to have to live with a runaway greenhouse effect in the not too distant future.  But then again, maybe we just don’t care – after all, few of us are about to stop having children; hand in the keys to our cars; stop using air travel for holidays; or switch to a vegetarian diet.  Maybe pretending that we are doing something about climate change is the only thing we are prepared to do.

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