We may not be living in the belly of the beast just yet, but we are most certainly now caught up in its jaws. In this case — the jaws of a politically and economically powerful set of fossil fuel interests that, unless they release their death grip, will condemn the world to a catastrophic future.
Fossil Fuel Interests vs a Benevolent Climate
Global warming in the range of 1.1 to 1.2 C above 1880s temperatures is already starting to have a destabilizing effect on many of the world’s nations. Seas are rising, the ice caps are melting, droughts, floods and wildfires are worsening, impacts to crops are growing more acute and unrest and inequality are on the rise. A related conflict over what energy sources will supply the world’s nations in the future has resulted in a sea change in the global political dynamic — setting climate change deniers representing fossil fuel special interests against honest scientists, renewable energy advocates, environmentalists and concerned businesses and citizens alike.
(Increasing rates of sea level rise, as shown in the most recent World Meteorological Organization report on The State of the Global Climate, are on track to render numerous cities, regions and island nations uninhabitable by the middle of this Century. This is just one of the many impacts of global warming. And continuing to burn fossil fuels makes each of these problems worse.)
This crisis and its related power struggle is the defining moment of our time. For its outcome will determine whether or not global civilization collapses in a series of worsening conflicts and climate calamities or if a new age of equal access and cooperation arises as more democratic and beneficial energy systems emerge and as nations decide to cooperate to come to the aid of those most hurt by the coming difficulties.
New Study Urges Rapid Deployment of Renewable Energy as Best Path Forward
We should be very clear that doom to human civilization by climate catastrophe is not inevitable. We have a shot at getting out of that trap if we escape the death-grip some fossil fuel industry backers now have on the global political and economic system. We can make it through if we take an alternative path. We can cut carbon emissions, make the global economy more resilient, and prevent the worst effects of climate change all at the same time. It will take a lot of concerted investment and effort. But it’s basically the conclusion of a recent joint study published by the International Energy Agency (IEA) and the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) that pursuing a rapid deployment of renewable energy systems combined with ongoing efforts to increase energy efficiency can steer the world away from the worst impacts of climate change.
The study determined that rapidly adding renewable energy systems and pursuing increased efficiency would be enough to reduce global carbon emissions by a rate of 2.6 percent per year. It aimed to produce a best shot at limiting warming to 2 degrees Celsius this Century. And though such a goal may still be overshot somewhat under the IEA/IRENA study’s recommended path, the overall results would be a dramatic departure from business as usual fossil fuel burning which would produce between 4 and 7 C (or more) warming this Century. This rapid transition to non carbon energy would reduce the severity of global warming consequences — giving space for people, cities and nations to adapt. Without this kind of transition, it is difficult to imagine how human civilization and large subsets of the vulnerable natural world could survive through 2100 or even through mid Century.
(IEA/IRENA report urges rapid cuts in carbon emissions by G-20 to prevent worst-case climate impacts.)
The study calls on the biggest global emitters and largest industrial nations to take responsibility for the bulk of this transition (represented by the G-20). And the heavy lift would come in the form of a 2.5 percent reduction in energy intensity per year to increase efficiency and a more than tenfold increase in renewable energy demand. The study calls for a 150 percent increase in renewable energy investments and a doubling of the present overall renewable energy adoption rate (120 to 150 gigawatt annual approx to 240 to 300 gigawatt annual approximate).
Energy Transition a Big Investment that Produces Major Benefits
Meanwhile, the industrial sector would need to lower its carbon intensity by 80 percent through 2050. Present global energy investments of 1.8 trillion per year would need to rise to 3.5 trillion per year to achieve these goals. Fossil fuel investment would decline while renewable energy investment would increase by 150 percent. Oil and coal use would fall as natural gas was used for lower emissions fuel switching before being phased out or entirely mated to carbon capture and storage (CCS) by mid century. The study notes that some investments in oil, gas and coal may be unrecoverable but that CCS could be deployed on a limited basis to strategically help soften the blow to certain market sectors even as overall use rates declined. The hard to access fossil fuels would be abandoned first while demand for the easier sources would be winnowed down later on in the period.
(Recommended policies would result in lower energy expenditures per household while both pollutants and emissions were dramatically reduced.)
By 2030, solar and wind energy combined, according to the report, would be the largest global provider of electricity. And by 2050, 95 percent of energy sources would need to be low carbon while 70 percent of automobiles would need to be electric. By 2060, the study envisions a zero carbon energy system.
Ironically, the economic benefits of this transition would be considerable. Such an energy transition alone would be expected to boost global GDP by 0.8 percent in 2050 (adding 1.6 trillion dollars to the global economy) and the total overall benefit to GDP would be 19 trillion. Overall, this is more than a 10 percent return on the 145 trillion invested over the period.
Serious Political Challenges Remain
It’s worth noting that the IEA/IRENA study presents its findings to a G-20 that is presently being strong-armed away from responses to climate change by the Trump Administration and Saudi Arabia. After apparent bullying by Trump, G-20 leaders are now afraid to even mention the term climate change. But Trump’s approach has not only spurred a backlash from scientists and environmentalists, a large subset of the business, civic and public policy leaders that often produce the basis for G-20 initiatives are speaking out against industrial nations moving in retrograde at the exact time that they should be moving forward. The leaders point out that leaving 19 trillion dollars on the table is nonsensical and that the climate crisis is already starting to harm both G-20 nations and the developing world (which has contributed comparatively little to the problem of climate change).
As a result, it appears that the fossil fuel interests backing Trump and that are the mainstay of petrostates like Saudi Arabia and Russia are producing a crisis of confidence among key G-20 constituents. It has become obvious to most of the non-fossil fuel world that an energy transition needs to happen and that it would be beneficial to pretty much everyone. But old interests are hanging tight on the reigns of power and delaying a necessary, helpful, and ultimately life-saving set of policy actions.