When COVID hit in 2020, global CO2 emissions decreased by 3 billion tons. In 2021 they went back up by 2.4 billion tons. That’s good for the economy but bad for the climate. The IPCC says we must reduce global emissions by 50 percent by 2030. That means that each year for the next 8 years we need to cut global emissions by 4.5 billion tons. What are the chances? A lot depends on the ability of developed and developing countries to work together.
The contrast between developed and developing countries is stark. In developed countries where 20 percent of the world’s population lives, population growth has stagnated and per capita energy consumption has decreased thanks to natural gas replacing coal. It is the opposite with developing countries where populations are still increasing, economies are still growing and driving up per capita carbon consumption, and coal remains the principal source of electricity. This is where virtually all the increase in energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions will happen.
As an aside, China’s explosive growth between 2003 and 2015 changed the energy landscape of the world. In those 12 years, China became the world’s largest energy and greenhouse gas producer, eclipsing even the U.S.
Back on point. Developed countries have some work to do – especially the U.S., Canada, and Australia where the per capita carbon footprint is three times the global average. These are big countries with big appetites, relatively low energy prices, and a population on the move a lot, so it isn’t any wonder that they have been high consumers of energy. But reducing their carbon footprints is vital. It won’t do a whole lot to reduce global emissions because collectively they only produce about 20 percent of them, so if they cut their carbon footprints in half, it would only reduce global emissions by 10 percent. Ten percent is nothing to sneeze at, but an even more important reason for these countries to reduce emissions is to encourage developing countries to participate in the effort as well.
With a population of almost 1.4 billion, India is the largest developing country in the world. Its per capita carbon footprint is 1.9 tons per person per year. In the U.S. it is 15.5 tons. Under these circumstances, is it fair to expect India not to increase its per capita consumption in order to raise the standard of living for its people? And are they willing to do it? India’s commitment at COP26 provides some insight. Of the five commitments it made at the conference, to me the most important one was this:
“To meet 50 percent of the country’s energy requirements using renewable energy sources by 2030.”
On its face, this statement appears to meet the IPCC goal. But a closer look at the details shows that when it says “energy requirements” it is only talking about electricity, not total energy. This happens quite a bit, especially with literature and news releases produced by renewable energy companies trying to impress readers and potential investors. The fact is that, from a global standpoint, electricity accounts for only 18 percent of total energy consumed, and in India, it is only 15 percent. So, when the commitment is to provide 50 percent of the country’s electricity from renewable energy sources, it is really only talking about 7.5 percent of total energy. As long as the world’s leaders continue to play these kinds of word games, we know that they are not seriously addressing the problem. And if the developing countries of the world continue to grow their populations and economies, it won’t matter what the developed countries do because they won’t be able to offset the increased emissions that the much larger populations of developing countries are capable of generating.
The question of energy equity, as it is called, runs smack up against the challenge of reducing global emissions. It would be great if renewable energy provided a Get Out of Jail Free card that would enable us to continue to consume energy at the prodigious rate at which we do without incurring the enormous environmental penalty that it does. But that doesn’t appear to be realistic for three reasons: 1. Wind and solar are puny and problematically intermittent when compared to the huge amount of on-demand energy we need, 2. The world remains afraid to invoke nuclear power, and 3. Nuclear fission remains an unfulfilled promise.
Perhaps innovation will provide some paradigm-shifting approach to energy production that will solve all our problems, but that is a thin reed on which to place our hopes when the consequences are so colossal. And now that we have waited 30 years to maybe get started on this, there isn’t time to build out whatever massive infrastructure that will be required to produce 600 quadrillion BTUs (175,000 terawatt-hours) of energy now being produced annually by fossil fuels in time to avoid the worst that nature will throw at us.
I’m confident that the dynamics will change and that world leaders will begin taking the difficult but necessary steps to prepare for and minimize the effects of the impact of a global climatic disaster, but that may still take some time, and every day we delay, the consequences will become more severe and a cooperative approach will become more difficult to achieve.