By Dave Wilkin
Buckle up, a climate-change political storm is coming!
The COP24 Climate conference in Poland recently ended, with some limited cheering over creating the ‘Paris Rulebook’ (a guide for countries to put their Paris commitments into action). Concurrently though, a newly released report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) raised the climate-change action bar again – stating we have just 12 years to cut our emissions in half, a step to reaching zero emissions by 2040 (to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees C) and avoid ‘climate disaster’. The current Paris commitments don’t come close to hitting the new targets. A rule book is a good step forward, but only if countries follow the rules. Sadly, their track records raise serious doubts, with recent forecasts showing accelerating emissions growth – a 2.7% 2018 increase, following a 1.6% increase last year.
Too often mainstream media reporting misses the big picture entirely, choosing to focus on popular narratives, like blaming the US Trump Administration, largely for its plan to withdraw from the 2015 Paris Agreement (which actually helps by focusing attention on its serious flaws). The facts show the US has achieved emission declines over the last decade. China is a far bigger problem though. It is responsible for 25% of all emissions (twice the #2 USA), and growing much more quickly (largely from increased coal burning). I strongly recommend you read “The Road from Paris: China’s Climate U-Turn” by Patricia Adams (Executive Director of Probe International, a Toronto-based NGO) to better understand China’s real goals, and the games it plays. Globe & Mail columnist Gary Mason nicely summarized it in his recent column “China’s Great Leap Backward on climate change”, quoting Ms. Adams “With green energy an abject failure in terms of meeting China’s need for either energy or clean air, all that’s left is propaganda”.
Yet, China is far from alone. Behind them are many fast-growing countries with rapidly developing middle-classes, and like China, none committing to emission reductions. China is helping them industrialize, with massive investments like their trillion $ ‘Belt and Road’ initiative, which will build pipelines, ports, railways, and power facilities (including many of the ~700 coal-powered plants per my previous article) in more than 70 countries. The China economic ‘miracle’ was, and continues to be, fuelled by carbon-based energy. It took 200 years to place three billion people into the middle class; it will take just 20 years to double it (most in Asia-Pacific). This, plus two billion in global population growth, drives the 27% global increase in energy demand forecasted over the next 20 years.
Unfortunately, the risks of man-made climate-change turns the miracle of carbon energy into a global ‘zero-sum game’. Achieving the new IPCC 2040 targets means replacing all carbon based energy (81% of all energy globally), and the retiring nuclear energy, with zero-emission energy. With hydro-power tapped out, and biomass not being zero-emission, that leaves the 1% green renewable sector expected to fill the entire energy gap. This requires the sector to grow at ~25% each year for the next 20 years. To understand how unrealistic this is, China saw just 0.7% share growth in the sector last year . Also note, the power-grids’ renewables’ energy cap would be reached long before the energy gap is closed. The reality is that nuclear-based energy remains today’s only viable zero-carbon energy source able to scale and replace all carbon-based energy. It’s sad that the Canadian government, in listening too much to environmental lobbyists, has significantly diminished our nuclear power industry over the last 20 years. Unfortunately, they are far from alone. The International Energy Agency understands this big picture, and has only lowered the 2040 global energy carbon-energy share forecast to 74%, far from the 0% IPCC target.
Broadly speaking, governments have these five big levers to reduce carbon emissions (roughly ordered in decreasing impact and political risk/challenge):
- Limit overall energy demand (and deforestation) by slowing/restricting population and economic growth.
- Limit carbon-based energy supplies (e.g. stopping pipelines, shutting down carbon-based fuel extraction, closing carbon-based power plants).
- Large new investments in nuclear energy, and electric power-grids (improving efficiencies, capacity, flexibility, interconnections)
- Reduce carbon-based energy demand by driving their costs up (e.g. new taxes) or by significantly reducing costs of greener alternatives through large incentives or subsidies.
- Reduce overall energy demand through efficiency incentives & subsidies.
It’s understood that these tough actions come with enormous costs and political risk – modest actions on levers #2 and #4 are already hitting ‘political walls’, #1 is hard to see any government undertaking, and #3 (nuclear) requires acceptance of largely unpopular risks. Short of non-existent massive carbon removal or high-risk geo-engineering schemes, the new IPCC targets and timelines look impossible to reach. However, that doesn’t mean we should do nothing. The risks and costs will only rise.
While some countries are struggling to find an acceptable balance (avoiding massive public backlash), others are all talk and little action. Buckle up, a climate-change political storm is coming!
Watch for the final instalment in this series – Getting the Transition to a Post-Carbon-Energy Future Right – next week.
Dave Wilkin, Masters, Electrical Eng., P. Eng.
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