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Global energy challenges: is there room for growth?

27 Mar 2019 Dave Elliott
Photo of seedling and roots
(Image courtesy: iStock/ThomasVogel)

Many global energy scenarios see renewables as expanding rapidly, with projections from the IRENA ranging past 50-60% by 2040 on the way to 80% or more of global electricity by 2050. Some even look to 100% by then. However, others offer slower expansion projections. One energy company thinks renewables will supply about 30% of global electricity by 2040, another 45%. Even so, a 50% share of electricity supply by around 2050 now seems an unexceptional global aim. Some countries can do much better than that. Several countries are already at well over 50% and, with generation costs falling, many others should be able to follow their lead. It may be worth noting that, according to an OECD/NEA report, between 2008 and 2015 renewable energy deployment “caused an electricity market price reduction of 24% in Germany and of 35% in Sweden”.

While attaining high electricity contributions seems relatively straightforward, many countries have found it harder to meet heat and transport needs directly from renewables. Instead the main approach has been to try to use electricity for electric vehicles while, in some cases, the plan is to install electric heat pumps for domestic heating. However, rates of growth of renewable electricity have fallen in some countries. For example, the demise of Feed-In Tariffs across Europe has slowed deployment rates and China has throttled back on its very rapid PV expansion to reduce subsidy costs. The result of this, along with continued growth in energy demand in most countries, for transport use especially, is that emissions have risen — the switch to electric vehicles has not as yet had much impact. Although the use of coal for power production is being phased out in many countries, it is still expanding in some.

The call to consider what some may see as desperate, expensive and possibly dangerous technical measures heightens the underlying more fundamental debate over the role of economic growth

The situation isn’t entirely gloomy. Demand for electricity had fallen in some countries, notably the UK, but with demand for oil (for transport) and coal (for power) still growing globally, the prospects are not too good and the IPCC is painting ever-worsening pictures of what horrors climate change may bring if we do not act soon. In response, while some call for much more attention to be given to energy efficiency and to much more rapid expansion of renewables, including non-electrical renewables, others suggest that urgent attention should also be given to carbon capture technology, including carbon negative initiatives, as well as to nuclear power and even to planetary geoengineering.

Can growth continue for ever?

The call to consider what some may see as desperate, expensive and possibly dangerous technical measures heightens the underlying more fundamental debate over the role of economic growth. Can it really be sustained on a finite planet even given clever new technologies? The debate has become rather polarized.  Bloomberg’s Michael Liebreich has put the essentially technological/market fix view that growth is vital for humanity. Pushing an ecological view, Tim Jackson from the University of Surrey, UK, says that it is not, actually it’s lethal for the planet.

The Post Carbon Institute in the US has been struggling with this issue for some time, looking to stable state economics. It’s no longer a fringe issue. Leading US journal Foreign Policy has asked whether economic growth can continue, even so-called “green growth”. Certainly, a deep green view is that on its own, green energy is little use unless growth is tamed. But growth is collapsing as global economies falter. Tim Jackson says that economic stagnation is likely, a social and economic disaster given the way the world is run at present, but a boon for almost all – and the planet – if we consciously designed a sustainable stable state economy.

The debate continues, with a core issue being whether what’s sometimes called eco-modernism can really enable sustainable growth. Technology may be able to help but possibly the real issue is whether we can change our consumption patterns and expectations.

Although some look to major social and economic changes as vital, some of the changes needed may not have to be that radical — for example, changes in diet away from so much meat-eating would help a lot. And that has begun to appear in plans and scenarios. For some that might be perceived as an appalling infringement on individual freedom, almost as bad as the parallel recommendation that population growth should be reduced. And as for the idea that we should fly less, well that’s heresy! Dare I add to the sense of injury by noting that carbon emissions from the energy supplies needed to run IT systems, including mobile devices and servers, is now said to be comparable with those from aircraft. I can envisage laptop and smart phone users talking of resistance to prising these devices from their “cold dead hands”.

Hope for the future

Are things quite so desperate? Some global political trends are not good. For example, it’s commonplace to worry about the climate impacts of Trump’s policies. Yet US emissions are falling and renewables are still booming there, as in most places, although the export of coal by the US (and gas from Russia) will undermine global emission reduction. The shift to electric vehicles may help to reduce carbon emissions, as long as green power is used, even if that shift won’t reduce congestion or other social/eco impacts. While much of Europe seems to be in thrall to populist urges, there are nevertheless some progressive renewable energy programmes, as I noted in my last two posts. A lot more is needed and can be achieved if we do not get sidetracked into panicky measures. Cutting demand across the board would help too, making it easier for renewables to supply the reduced amount needed.

Interestingly, in that context, Mark Jacobson of Stanford University, US, has released a revised chart from his upcoming new book 100% Clean, Renewable Energy and Storage for Everything, updating his earlier data, with global energy demand falling by 57.9% by 2050 due to fuel substitution and energy efficiency upgrades, and with renewables then meeting the residual demand in all sectors. With similarly positive news, IRENA has backed a study by the Global Commission on the Geopolitics of Energy Transformation that includes a brave new global energy scenario, based on Shell data, with renewables accelerating exponentially to almost totally eclipse fossil fuels by 2100. In terms of winners and losers, the Commission said that “no country has put itself in a better position to become the world’s renewable energy superpower than China” and it warned that countries reliant on oil exports might lose out. That may also be true for those still backing coal — see my next post. Certainly there is a need for change as the new quite grim report from the World Economic Forum argues: while some progress has been made, few countries are ready for the transition, it says, and calls for “swift action”.

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