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No supply side route out of climate chaos

Image: ianholton

Among the many disagreements between environmental campaigners, government ministers and business leaders, there is one central point of agreement – renewable energy harnessing technologies are the solution.  While campaigners may rail against the lack of commitment to deploy these technologies, only a minority among them is prepared to contemplate an alternative route.  In the same way, while governments and businesses are dragging their feet about deploying the technologies, few (beyond the climate change deniers) are offering an alternative approach to tackling climate change.

The trouble is this cosy consensus is based around a flawed hope.  It is no accident that electricity generation has been the focus of attention by all concerned.  Why?  because unlike the other sectors of the economy, electricity is by far the easiest into which new technologies can be deployed.  Whereas, for example, internal combustion engines – on which a large part of our transport, industry and agriculture depend – can only operate on a narrow range of oil-based fuels, the electricity grid can run on almost anything from wood chips to uranium and from windmills to chicken flatulence.  You name it, if it can produce sufficient heat, someone will find a way to use it to turn a magnet inside a copper coil.

So far so good.  The other part of the proposed solution, however, is that we then produce so much more electricity from the renewable energy harnessing technologies that are added to the electricity grid that we can quickly switch all of the vehicles, machinery and equipment that currently runs on fossil fuels to run on electricity instead.  It is here that things break down badly.

In order to maintain the fiction that we are somehow making progress toward the dreamed of decarbonised economy, both environmental campaigners and governments have adopted the unpleasant habit of referring to the electricity grids of western consuming economies as if they were the global energy system as a whole.  And so we are now regularly treated to media headlines about this or that city, region or country being powered entirely on renewables when, quite obviously from the accompanying images, the place still depends on petroleum powered trucks and cars.

In the UK, wind turbines can provide more than 40 percent of our electricity (although as we discovered during the heatwave in June and July, there are also periods when wind barely registers in our electricity balance).  However, most of the UK’s energy consumption has been offshored to countries that manufacture a large part of the goods we consume.  And those countries have a tendency to burn an awful lot of oil and coal.  So much so, that our Herculean efforts to deploy renewable energy harnessing technologies have barely registered globally.  As Nick Butler at the Financial Times reports:

“To understand what has been happening it is instructive to compare the new [International Energy Agency] Outlook with that published 10 years ago. Hydrocarbons — oil, gas and coal — accounted for 81 per cent of total global energy supply in 2008. The figure today is still 81 per cent and, according to the 2018 Outlook, that will decline only marginally over the next 20 years to 74 per cent in 2040.

“In 2008, renewables led by wind and solar (including modern bioenergy but excluding hydro power) supplied just 1 per cent of global demand. The latest Outlook puts the figure at 7 per cent — very significant growth but still insufficient to alter the global market or have a major impact on emissions. Renewables are not replacing hydrocarbons but rather nuclear, hydro and subsistence biofuels.”

Take out the “modern bioenergy” – which includes a lot of unsustainable wood burning that generates higher carbon emissions than coal – and the numbers are much worse; with solar, wind, geothermal, wave, tidal, and ocean energy accounting for less than three percent of the global energy mix.  Worse still, as Butler points out:

“Emissions of energy-related carbon dioxide are still rising and are more than 40 per cent higher than in 2000. Despite all the policy measures taken by different countries and mounting evidence of the impact of climate change they are projected to keep growing, albeit more slowly, for the next two decades.”

The reason is that the renewables that everyone has been relying on to save the day have done nothing to prevent the rise in fossil fuel consumption.  Butler blames two emerging trends for this:

“The first is the growing role of Asia in global energy consumption. From 18 per cent of the total in 1980, Asian demand has risen to 41 per cent now and is projected to account for almost half by 2040. Two-thirds of all the growth in energy consumption to 2040 will come from Asia…

“The second change is the re-emergence of the US as one of the world’s leading energy suppliers, meeting its own needs and beginning to export both oil and gas. The shale revolution was completely unexpected. In the 2008 Outlook it is not mentioned. Now, only 10 years later, the US will produce some 7.6m barrels of oil a day from the main shale formations, with the prospect of much more to come.”

Whether US shale oil production can continue to grow into the 2040s is a moot point.  The investment brochures say it can, but a growing number of geologists say that the recoverable reserves are not large enough.  Nevertheless, our insatiable demand for stuff continues to drive an Asian manufacturing boom that in turn demands that we fuel it with whatever supplies of coal, gas and oil we can find.  And ironically, shifts from fossil fuels to renewables in Western economies are serving only to free up fossil fuel supplies for export to Asia.  As Butler notes:

“Much has changed in the global energy market but the shift to a lower carbon economy has barely begun.”

The consensus-breaking truth is that if we in the West wish to combat climate change, we need to stop consuming anything that requires fossil fuels in its manufacture… and that includes the solar panels, wind turbines and electric cars that serve only to perpetuate the fossil carbon system.  Unfortunately, nobody is voting for that alternative.

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