25 march 2018

Good news about renewables: but the heat is still on to cut fossil fuel use

New data shows global emissions are at a historic high. Political leaders must now consider imposing serious penalties

The Guardian, Sun 25 Mar 2018

For optimists, it was tempting to view three years of flatlining global carbon emissions, from 2014-16, as the new normal. We now know celebrations should be put on hold. Figures for 2017 published last week show global emissions from energy have jumped back up again, to a historic high.

The data from the International Energy Agency shows we still have much to do when it comes to stopping global warming. Three years ago experts cautioned that 2015’s near standstill in emissions might be only a temporary pause before resuming the upward march as India and China developed. Those warnings were prophetic.

Global energy demand last year grew by 2.1%, more than double the rate in 2016, driven largely by Asia. The problem for the climate is that more than 70% of the growth came from fossil fuels. Gas was the fastest-growing fossil fuel. But even coal, the most carbon-intensive fuel, reversed two years of declines and was up by 1%, as coal burning in China, India and South Korea grew.

To compound matters, progress on energy efficiency slowed dramatically in the face of lower energy prices and weakening government policy. On the plus side, renewables were the fastest-growing source of new energy and had another unprecedented year. China added as much solar power in a single year as the total installed capacity across France and Germany. The US scored the steepest drop in emissions, despite Donald Trump’s first year as president, as new renewable generation bloomed.

Indeed, with renewables records being broken seemingly every week – last weekend the UK set a new high for wind power – it is easy to think the fight has been won. But the IEA’s work is a sobering reminder that stratospheric growth in renewables is not enough. Renewables put a brake on emissions but they don’t stop coal, oil and gas from being dug out of the ground.

The most sobering figure in the agency’s research is 81%: the amount of global energy that comes from fossil fuels. It’s been about the same for the past three decades.

So, if the energy sector is still nowhere near compatible with the demands of climate science, and the goals set by nearly 200 governments in Paris three years ago, what do we do?

Despair is not an option, and there are reasons for hope. One is Beijing’s self-interest in tackling air quality, which means coal plant closures and bans, and the promotion of electric cars. India, the coal industry’s last great hope, has witnessed a faster than expected rise in solar power, squeezing out coal projects. Germany’s new government finally has plans to tackle the country’s outmoded reliance on coal. Globally, coal capacity will begin shrinking in 2022 at the current rate of retirements, according to a new report.

Arguably the brightest and most promising trend is that renewables are on the brink of being economically viable without government subsidies. In the UK alone, an estimated £20bn worth of wind and solar farms could be built without subsidies between now and 2030.

This year the UN is undertaking a stocktake of countries’ climate plans and it should keep the IEA numbers at the forefront of its thinking.

But getting to the top of the carbon emission mountain and down again will not be achieved solely with more favourable economics and stronger government support.

Leaders must take the much more politically difficult decision to penalise fossil fuels. The means are many: economy-wide carbon taxes are an obvious one that many energy firms claim to support. Bans on extraction of fossil fuels are a more extreme example. We must vote for those politicians who are bold enough to do this. We must renew pressure on them to say no to dirty energy, as well as yes to clean energy. Only then do we have a hope of permanently reducing emissions.

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