We want a world in which we can count on secure and affordable energy supplies, right? We don’t have any lasting interest in hearing about risks for oil supply disruption or emerging gas security challenges, do we? We crave a reliable energy system that offers increasing system flexibility and resilience within the electricity sector. Renewable energy is the answer to those goals, clearly, as it is a long-term strategy that provides timely investments in line with environmental needs. If renewables are the solution, then why is the news filled with stories about how energy security (code: fossil fuel) needs to take center stage in today’s world?
The Earth has warmed up by 1.1°C since the Industrial Revolution. This has induced more extreme weather events worldwide. Increased GHG emissions have made natural disasters more frequent and severe. Beyond a tipping point, they could well trigger irreversible ecosystem collapses. World leaders have met regularly but no binding agreement could be reached about mitigation measures commensurate with the severity of the looming crisis: energy-related CO2 emissions have grown by over 60% with only brief pauses.
There were new commitments at last year’s COP26. For the first time, fossil fuels and phasing down coal were mentioned in the final document. Agreements to stop deforestation and to cut methane emissions were also reached with long lists of signatories. The two largest emitters of GHGs, the US and China, announced a joint agreement to work together to combat climate change.
A column in Bloomberg Green earlier this month, however, expressed doubt that many positive results actually came out of COP26. The “toxic combination of political intransigence, an energy crisis, and pandemic-driven economic realities” halted what might have been progress in setting ambitious net-zero targets. Instead, “fossil fuels are staging a comeback, clean energy stocks are taking a hammering, and the prospects for speeding the transition to renewable sources of power are looking grim.”
That overall trend away from renewables makes no logical sense.
- Renewable energy costs have fallen rapidly.
- Investment in clean technologies is soaring.
- Voters across the world are demanding stronger action to move toward zero emissions.
What happened? How did so many COP26 back-channel negotiations fail to produce tangible results toward a renewable energy transition?
The old fossil fuel lap dance: that’s what happened.
- The price of oil at nearly $100 barrel is teasing governments the world over.
- The US was the world’s top LNG exporter in January, 2022.
- Coal consumption climbed 8% in 2021 after years of declines.
- Influential people in government like Senator Joe Manchin (D-Coal) have stymied the “Build Back Better” bill and its core climate measures through the US Senate.
The list goes on and on.
Are Energy Security Fears Focused on Adequate Supply or Profits?
The International Energy Agency (IEA) describes its work on energy security to ensure “that markets remained well supplied, providing information to governments, and helping improve system resilience.” Even while acknowledging that “renewable sources of energy such as wind and solar PV continued to grow rapidly and electric vehicles set new sales records,” the IEA cautioned that “for all the advances being made by renewables and electric mobility,” 2021 was a year for large rebounds in coal and oil use, amounting to “the second-largest annual increase in CO2 emissions in history.”
They gently slapped the proverbial hands of governments “to fully deliver on their announced pledges” at COP26. The world’s largest oil and gas companies joined in on the doublespeak, assuring governments and subsidiary companies that they vow to strengthen their climate targets — yet none have given investors confidence that their business model is fully aligned to Paris Agreement targets.
What climate doublespeak announcements were made post-COP26?
- Top Chinese officials stressed the need for energy security alongside carbon reduction efforts. Yes, the Chinese acknowledge its record-breaking build out of solar and wind power, but that country’s share of coal and gas in power generation was still as high as 71% in 2021, the same as 2020.
- Saudi Arabia’s top energy official said that efforts to combat climate change should not undermine global energy security or shun any particular energy source. “It is imperative that we recognize the diversity of climate solutions, and the importance of emissions reduction as stipulated in the Paris Agreement, without any bias towards or against any particular source of energy,” Energy Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman Al Saud insisted. The energy minister denied the kingdom was hampering international talks on the issue.
- Despite the urgency to limit greenhouse gas emissions, some oil-producing countries are expanding oil extraction, for example, in the Ecuadorian Amazon. In oil-dependent developing countries, such as Angola, Azerbaijan, Congo, South Sudan, Timor-Leste, and Venezuela, more than 60% of fiscal revenues come from oil exports, according to Carbon Tracker.
- The world’s 60 biggest banks have invested $3.8 trillion in fossil fuels.
- “Business as usual” subsidies continue to be considered essential to support energy and fuel availability versus insufficient funding for upscaled alternatives.
- The wealthiest 1% of the world’s population continue to be responsible for the emission of more than twice as much carbon dioxide as the poorer half of the world.
Final Thoughts about Energy Security & Renewables
The current post-COP26 turbulence reinforces the fact that painful measures to reroute away from fossil fuels were always going to be required. But isn’t the cost of inaction greater? Ten of 2021’s worst climate disasters cost the global economy $170 billion.
As the Brookings Institute notes, Egypt, the host of COP27 next year, has a monumental challenge ahead.
- Multilateral responses and solutions must coalesce to honor the Paris Agreement and the 1.5 C goals to limit emissions increases.
- Governments must join together in solidarity, accepting shared but differentiated responsibilities for a healthy, stable earth system.
- Evaluators should systematically broaden the conversation beyond narrowly defined objectives by adopting theories of change that will show interventions. The need to illuminate environmental and social impacts in the short and long term — intergenerationally, locally, and globally — is essential.
All constituent groups must concur that the climate is our most valuable asset and must be protected, even at the expense of fossil fuel profits. Preparation for COP27 must include global adaptation research. Over a decade ago, developed countries committed to mobilize $100 billion per year by 2020 to support developing countries to adapt and reduce their emissions; this goal must persevere.
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