The Global Energy Transition Is Underway – But It’s Too Narrow to Avert Possible Serious Climate Change
A transition from fossil fuels to a non-carbon-based world economy is underway, and its progress and fulfillment will affect the type of environment future generations encounter. Prompted by energy-diversification strategies and the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change, numerous countries are actively seeking ways to slow down or scale back use of fossil fuels, raise energy efficiencies, and promote the electrification of their economies. But questions remain about how fast the transition can occur and what the optimal path forward is.
In a new paper, we challenge conventional thinking and question why there is still so much discussion about keeping global temperature increases below the 1.5 degree centigrade threshold when this target is unlikely to be met. We also ask how far solar and wind power can and should be pushed, given the relatively low capacity factors of these renewables. Preference for these power sources often reflects a bias toward doing what is seen rather than what is unseen. Massive tracts of solar panels and windmills, along with the associated power lines and battery warehouses, are visible, whereas thermal insulation in buildings and other efficiency improvements are not.
Every time another poorly insulated building is constructed, it locks the world into more power infrastructure, perhaps for as long as the next 100 years. Instead of racing to build ever-larger solar and wind farms to power relatively inefficient stocks of buildings and equipment, we should put our greatest emphasis on efficiency improvements. The notion of clearing forests to build solar-panel farms, such as is now being proposed in parts of the U.S. East Coast, is also questionable from an environmental perspective.
Another concern is the growing use of all-electric vehicles in countries or regions where coal-fired power generation dominates the electricity industry. Areas with just moderate coal-based electric-power generation, like many regions of the U.S., can easily have the same overall carbon emissions from electric vehicles as from gasoline with the improved efficiencies of hybrid electric cars. Areas with significant coal-based electric power generation, such as many regions in China, can have higher carbon emissions from electric vehicles than from hybrid electric cars.
Key Realities and Uncertainties
How far and at what speed the global energy transition will evolve will likely depend on three critical factors: renewable-energy penetration rates; EV penetration rates; and energy-efficiency gains in industry, transportation, and buildings. During the next decade and beyond, the mix of fuels used for electricity generation will arguably be the most important variable in the world energy landscape. Developing countries will increasingly rely on renewables, as well as natural gas, and possibly on nuclear power rather than coal as the primary electricity-generation fuel to meet this growing need. According to the International Energy Agency, the percentage share of renewables in Asia-Pacific electricity generation between 2019 and 2040 will rise from 24% to 44%; nuclear power’s share will rise slightly during that period, but coal’s share in power production will drop from 58% in 2019 to 37% in 2040.
As the global energy transition proceeds over the next two decades, we will see a gradual shift toward an increased reliance on metals and minerals in order to reduce reliance on fossil fuels – for example, the manufacturing and use of solar panels, windmills, and the associated transmission lines and battery storage. The metals and minerals requirements for these new advanced-energy technologies are possibly a bigger problem than their current costs reflect. In 2017, the World Bank assessed the metal and minerals requirement of a low-carbon world and found that compared to current extraction rates, future demand would soar to levels probably not satisfiable with known reserves and entail a huge amount of ecological destruction.
The exception to the trend of material intensification is nuclear power. A large number of conventional nuclear plants around the world are due to be retired within a decade or so. Many nuclear plants built across Europe were constructed in the 1970s and 1980s, with an intended 40-year life span. Any large-scale global retreat from nuclear power will almost certainly make global climate change goals more difficult to achieve. As the world becomes increasingly electrified, including a rapid push toward electric vehicles and charging stations along with smart metering, cyber threats will become more widespread and commonplace.
New Year, New Push for Cleaner Energy
The U.S. is the world’s second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases behind China and is seen as key in the worldwide effort to avoid possible drastic impacts of climate change. The Biden administration has rejoined the 2015 Paris Agreement via executive order in an effort to jump-start U.S. commitments to cleaner energy and strengthen American leadership in low-carbon energy. The next round of UN climate talks is set to take place in Glasgow, Scotland in November of this year, in which countries are to submit new, more ambitious 2030 targets. Eyes will likely be focused on the U.S.
At present, the debate on mitigating climate change within the energy community is too narrowly focused on increasing the supply of renewables and other low-carbon energy sources, rather than on also having a serious focus on demand-side management. We argue that if the world is to greatly increase the chances of averting possibly serious climatic consequences, the scope of the global energy transition should be broadened to include options for greater emphasis on efficiency, the use of solar geoengineering and other technological means to reverse carbon levels, and slowing population growth rates while the new energy economy is being established.
James Dorian is an International Energy Economist based in Washington, D.C. and may be reached at email@example.com
Malcolm Shealy is a former Senior Energy Analyst with PCI based in Beaverdam, VA.
Dale Simbeck is a Former Vice President of Technology at SFA Pacific, Inc., Palo Alto, CA.
All opinions, analyses, and statements of fact are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official positions of any U.S. or international organization or government agency.