Stuck on climate broil: ratio of fossil fuels to renewables unchanged in twenty five years. Now what?
The head of the International Energy Agency (IEA) highlighted an ominous long-term trend in a speech last month:
"Despite much talk by our leaders about the need to clean up our energy system, it is still as dirty as it was two decades ago. Fossil fuels today account for 82 percent of the global energy mix – a level that has not changed in 20 years … The continuation of this trend is not compatible with the 2‐degree Celsius target that our leaders have vowed to meet. So we have a lot of work to do."
-- IEA Executive Director Maria van der Hoeven on 22 February 2014 at M.I.T.
Techno-optimists have hoped that technology would solve the climate crisis for us by delivering a renewable energy revolution. They regularly point to amazing technological advances in solar panels, wind turbines, advanced biofuels, hydropower and enhanced geothermal.
The ugly climate data from global energy experts like the IEA and the US Energy Information Agency's (EIA), however, shows this isn't happening. Today, renewable energy supplies the same small percent of the world's energy as it did a quarter century ago.
Technology is proving to be a double-edged sword that Big Fossil has been wielding far more effectively than Little Renewables. Fracking, horizontal drilling, steam-assisted gravity discharge, coal-to-liquids and ultra-deep-water drilling are just a few of the techno-wonders that have unlocked an ever-growing gusher of "unconventional" hydrocarbons.
Even more ominously, on deck for team Fossil is perhaps the biggest hydrocarbon reservoir on the planet -- undersea methane hydrates. Japan, with the aid of the US Department of Energy, has just started to pick the lock on this truly gigantic fossil fuel resource using the newest in techno-wizardry.
As Associated Press energy writer Jonathan Fahey so pithily summed it up:
"Technology created an energy revolution over the past decade—just not the one we expected."
Let's look at the data. To start with, here is an IEA chart showing world energy use over the last several decades:
And here is the same chart modified to better highlight the unchallenged fossil fuel dominance that van der Hoeven warned about:
Being a climate geek, I decided to double-check this trend using the US Energy Information Agency's (EIA) global energy database. Sure enough, the same basic trend shows up in EIA data:
While the percentage of fossil fuels vs other energy sources has stayed the same, the total energy added by each has obviously been vastly different. My next chart shows just the increase in energy over the last 25 years:
Every time Little Renewables added one new BTU of energy, Big Fossil added another five. One step towards climate safety -- five steps back. Are we there yet?
Finally, here is a chart of the climate pollution produced by all that fossil fuel burning. According to US EIA data, the global fossil fuel energy mix is just as dirty now as 25 years ago. Fossil fuel energy use increased 67% over that time and the resulting CO2 pollution did too.
It seems clear to me from this data that decades of incredible progress on renewable energy has failed to make any dent in the surging levels of climate pollution from fossil fuels. None. Zip. Fail.
Perhaps it is time we tried something that economists say actually will work: charging fossil fuels for the damage CO2 pollution causes.
The US Government's official "Social Cost of Carbon" calculation shows that each tonne of CO2 is inflicting a bare minimum of $37 in damage on society today. These damages are expected to rise year after year. What if we made CO2 pollution pay for these damages? Well in America anyway the US EIA projects that this alone would slash that nation's emissions more than 25% by 2020 and 33% by 2030.
Allowing fossil fuels to use our atmosphere as a free sewer for climate pollution has locked our energy system on "techno-broil". As the head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has said bluntly, continuing what we are doing will leave our children "roasted, toasted, fried and grilled."