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More and less (part two)

Saturday 6 July 2019

A Tortoise ThinkIn on energy and climate change, Washington, DC. 13 June 2019


“There is a false choice between business as usual and dealing with climate change. If we don’t deal with climate change and don’t allow people to develop, people will die.”

Sarah Ladislaw, Center for Strategic and International Studies

“If we’re going to draw a line [limiting energy consumption], why draw it in India? We shouldn’t draw it there.”

Spencer Dale, Group Chief Economist, BP

Global energy consumption is going up, not down. That is not a forecast. It’s a fact, and the trend is almost certain to continue. This could bring benefits to billions, but they will count for little if the increase also brings catastrophic climate change.

Two questions follow. Can we cut carbon emissions while producing more energy? And will we?

At a ThinkIn in May we discussed the first of these and the consensus was that technically it’s entirely possible to do both. At this ThinkIn in Washington we tackled the second question. Are we – consumers, producers, governments – equal to what BP calls the dual challenge? The answers were not reassuring.

The numbers:

  • Global energy demand rose by 2.9 per cent last year.
  • Carbon emissions were up by 2 per cent, equivalent to 400,000 more cars on the planet’s roads.
  • Oil, gas and coal consumption rose by 1.5, 5 and 1.4 per cent respectively.

Source: BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2019

 

So from a climate change perspective all the indicators are going in the wrong direction (after signs of a more positive trend in the middle of the decade). The Paris climate agreement set a goal of keeping global warming well below 2 degrees C. But as Spencer Dale put it last month at his London presentation of BP’s annual statistical review of world energy, we face “a growing mismatch between hope and reality”.The context:

  • The Trump administration is planning to scrap vehicle emissions targets set in the Obama years. If the move survives legal challenges it would add 500,000 barrels of oil per day to US energy consumption.
  • The UK continues to try to lead the way on carbon cutting with an announcement from outgoing prime minister Theresa May that she will use a statutory instrument (avoiding the need for a parliamentary vote) to force Britain to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050. But…
  • In other big emerging economies there is scant hope of the idea of a dual challenge gaining traction as a guide to policy, because one challenge – getting energy to those who currently have little or no access to it – dominates overwhelmingly.
  • In India more than 40 per cent of primary energy demand is supplied by coal and it is so embedded in the regional economies where it’s mined that there is little prospect of the country ending its reliance on the most carbon-intensive of all fossil fuels in the near future.
 

The upshot: We face a trade-off between planetary damage and personal quality of life that we are collectively unwilling to acknowledge. The longer we postpone decisive action, the more urgent the action becomes, and the more disruptive and expensive it will eventually be.

It’s a bear of a problem, one guest said – the sort you might design if you wanted it to be insoluble. “It’s the ultimate tragedy of the commons.”

One solution that is not acceptable, Dale said, is poverty. He didn’t offer any silver bullets, but he did urge people to absorb the idea that cutting emissions without increasing overall energy supply was no solution to the climate change conundrum.

 

People seem to want to hear what Dale has to say even if it’s depressing, as they showed last month in London and four separate locations in DC. The 2018 stats may be positive if your only concern is fossil fuel demand, but not if you accept the Paris goals and the science behind them. Then you’re trying to tackle a global, long-term challenge with governments whose priorities are local and short-term. Trying – and failing. For example: last year 38 per cent of global power generation was met by coal – exactly the same proportion as 20 years ago. Dale was in a bleak mood, but there was pushback.

A guest with deep knowledge of Californian climate change policies said the 12 progressive US states currently fighting for tougher emissions standards could provide “proof of concept” of massive decarbonisation, and then help developing economies leapfrog coal-heavy industrialisation.

A former senior US government scientist accepted that policy has a key role but insisted that tech does too, and not just for technical reasons. “People need to be motivated by shiny new things.”

Shiny new things. That gets heads nodding in Washington. Solar and wind power were laughed at 50 years ago but gained shiny new status as prices fell and output rose. Then came LEDs. And next? As a for instance we were told about a North Carolina company which has reinvented the gas-fired power plant to produce a pure, compressed stream of CO2 that is easily captured for burial or re-use. Also, look out for new ways of producing aluminium and of sequestering carbon in soil.

This was a gathering of frustrated optimists. We were in the policymaking hub of the most extravagant but also the most innovative economy on earth. The current US administration is not helping. In fact it’s actively hindering progress on cutting carbon and boosting clean energy. But it will take more than a new team in the White House to beat climate change.

It will take:

  • a new willingness on the part of first-world consumers to pay more for their energy and, especially in the US, use less of it;
  • a new courage on the part of politicians to lead on climate change, not just bow at the altar of consumer choice; and
  • ditto energy producers; customers and shareholders are not the only stakeholders here.

“We are having conversations about [cutting] CO2 while actual change is happening in energy demand,” said Sarah Ladislaw of CSIS. And social media is a big part of this divergence between talk and action: thanks to their smartphones, people in developing countries are more aware than ever of the quality-of-life improvements to which they can aspire. That makes them impatient. At the same time all of us need to be impatient about controlling climate change. The tools are available. They’re not a mystery. They boil down to smart policies to harness competition and economies of scale to roll out smart, affordable clean energy technology systems at scale.

“But we are not doing these things… And we don’t have time to let people go through the whole development cycle we’ve been through.”

This wasn’t the last word on the subject but it summed up where we are: staring at an existential problem, and at the solutions, and failing, collectively, to act.

By way of follow-up we will aim to

  • Pinpoint why governments aren’t facing up to the need for more energy as well as lower emissions
  • Research and describe in detail the kind of energy system that might actually meet this dual challenge
  • Take a close look at that new CO2 separation method. Where does the carbon go?
  • Anatomise the Indian coal industry as a case study. What inducements would leave its coal in the ground and at the same time bring air-con to its people?

Thanks for coming; watch this space.

Photography by Getty Images