Per Capita Davis: New report on world energy outlook
There are several highly reputable organizations tracking the science of the climate crisis and issuing regular reports. Probably the best known of these is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change at the United Nations. Another, right up there at the top in terms of reputation is the International Energy Agency.
The IEA was formed way back in 1974 to “help countries coordinate a collective response to major disruptions in the supply of oil, such as the crisis of 1973/4.” It has since evolved to track and report on all issues related to energy, including the climate crisis, and recently released its annual World Energy Outlook. This report, more than 800 pages in length, looks at current policies and uses these to forecast energy trends to a projected horizon of 2040.
There is good news in the report, but (sorry) bigger bad news, both summarized in a recent article in the New York Times.
According to the article, the report indicates that one of the primary villains in the climate crisis, using coal to produce electricity, is on its way out, with global consumption of the “dirtiest of all fuels” slowing. Of course, “slowing,” although a positive and better than “increasing,” is not nearly where we need to be. The article attributes this slowdown to countries such as India increasingly looking to solar and battery storage for electricity needs.
Again citing the Times article, “The report predicts that wind, solar and hydropower will surpass coal as the world’s dominant source of electricity by 2030, growing to 42 percent of global generation. Coal would drop to 34 percent” and reliance on natural gas would increase.
Continuing, and throwing a dark cloud over the good news about coal’s slowdown, “Still, the agency notes that coal is far from dead: Hundreds of coal plants that have already been built in Asia are only 12 years old on average and are capable of operating for decades to come. It will be extremely difficult for the world to rapidly reduce its greenhouse gas emissions unless these existing plants are run less frequently, retired early, or retrofitted with technology to capture their carbon dioxide pollution and bury it underground.”
The report is optimistic about the potential for offshore wind as a source of electricity, forecasting that its current production of 2 percent of the electricity needs of the European Union will increase to nearly 20 percent by 2040. Similar gains could be made in the United States, China, South Korea and Japan if “developers can overcome regulatory and permitting hurdles.” This is a big “if.”
Nearly everyone seems to agree that wind energy is a good thing, but, at least in this country, many people object to seeing it from their beach. This tension between development of renewable energy such as wind and solar versus environmental or aesthetic concerns is now, and will continue to be, a key test of how serious we consider the threat posed by the climate crisis.
Ideally, we can have both: the energy, the environment, and the displacement of energy production to locations where we don’t have to look at it. But, unless we achieve more now in terms of greenhouse gas reductions, the escalating seriousness of the climate crisis will inevitably lower or eliminate regulatory and permitting hurdles based on environmental concern or aesthetics.
The report offers good news about cars. In 2018 more than 2 million consumers purchased electric vehicles and the IEA predicts this will increase substantially. They balance this by pointing out that a “growing number” of people in the United States, Europe, China and India are eschewing small cars in favor of SUV’s.
The article indicates that, “In 2000, just 18 percent of passenger vehicles sold worldwide were SUV’s. Today it’s 42 percent.” The lower mpg for an SUV is offsetting the reduction in gas usage from the increase in electric vehicles. Perhaps a glimmer of positive news is the development of and soon to be marketed Ford electric SUV and Tesla’s unveiling of an electric pick-up truck later this week.
But still, all those gas and diesel cars now on the road, like coal-fired power plants, will last many years, burning fossil fuel as long as they are on the road.
The World Energy Outlook also takes notice that efforts to increase energy efficiency in homes, businesses and factories improved at the glacial rate of only 1.2 percent in 2018. The United States is leading the charge in the wrong direction, even planning to roll back standards that would require more efficient light bulbs.
The report makes many additional findings and projections, one of which is that development in Africa, which is urbanizing at a rate faster than China in the 1990s and early 2000s, will play a key role in our future depending on whether it follows a fossil fuel or renewable energy pathway.
One of my takeaways from the report is that the momentum of current infrastructure, whether it be buildings and coal plants that have already been built, and cars that are now on the road, will make it extremely difficult to turn what we have now towards a sustainable future. The sooner we get started the better.
— John Mott-Smith is a resident of Davis. This column appears in the printed version of the Enterprise the first and third Wednesday of each month. Please send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Crossposted from the Davis Enterprise
Published online on November 20, 2019 | Printed in the November 20, 2019 edition on page A5
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