A Hesitant Transition: Renewable Energy Growth and Carbon Emissions

From the India Forum:

Renewable energy capacity has expanded globally but this does not as yet mark a shift away from fossil fuels. On current trends, energy use from CO2-emitting fuels will continue to rise in the future. Talk of decarbonsiation of the world economy is premature.

In 2015, global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions plateaued even as the world economy grew by about 3%. Emissions rose, but only slightly, the following year. There was much relief, even triumph, in the mainstream press and some scholarly literature, that the world economy had begun decarbonising. Reports suggested we were experiencing “a partial decoupling between the growth in CO2 emissions and that in the economy”.

Since 1970, CO2 emissions from fossil fuels―coal, oil, and gas―had grown by about 0.4% for every one percentage point rise in world GDP. But now writers surmised, they would stay flat or even decline while economic growth continued.

A second proposition, connected to the first, suggests we have been witnessing an energy transition worldwide: a shift away from fossil fuels and towards a huge expansion of renewable energy, led primarily by solar and wind power. Referring to one such fossil fuel, the energy analyst and executive chairman of Brookings India, Vikram S Mehta, wrote a couple of years ago, “Historians will look back on 2016 as the year of inflexion for the oil industry … the year the oil era began to slowly but inexorably hand over the energy baton to clean energy”(“Over the Barrel”, Indian Express, 6 February 2017). The climate change activist and writer Bill McKibben recently wrote approvingly “ … in the next few years, we will reach the peak use of fossil fuels, not because we are running out of them but because renewables will have become so cheap. … [Kingsmill] Bond writes that in the 2020s―probably the early 2020s―the demand for fossil fuels will stop growing.” ( “A Future Without Fossil Fuels”, New York Review of Books, 4 April 2019)

This essay probes whether, and to what extent, these two propositions hold water. It builds on arguments made by others that talk of an energy transition is misleading (Sweeney and Treat 2017) or very partial (Pirani 2018). Using the latest available data I show that whereas we are undoubtedly witnessing an expansion of renewable energy worldwide, it does not amount to a transition. Not as yet. For the concept energy “transition” also implies that we are transiting away from what was dominant earlier and relegating it to a small proportion of the energy landscape. That is certainly not happening with oil and gas. Whether we are even transiting from coal is moot.

What’s more, given the accelerating impacts of global warming in recent years, are we transiting away from fossil fuels at anywhere near the pace that the science demands? This question has acquired even greater salience with the eruption of the “Extinction Rebellion” and other movements in Europe and elsewhere, including India, by school students and others demanding sharp cuts in emissions and the declaration of a climate crisis, both in India and on a planetary scale.”

Posted by at 10:11 AM

Labels: Energy & Climate Change


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