Fossil-renewable reality check
We got that reality check this week from REN21, a renewable energy outfit based in Paris. The organization’s goal is to help “make the shift to renewable energy happen — now.” Its publications and website are peppered with inspiring pictures, happy people and videos about “leaving the fossil fuel age behind us.”
But REN21’s latest Global Status Report shows we are far from leaving the fossil fuel age behind.
The authors contrast where we are today compared to one decade ago (they use the most recent global data available: 2019 versus 2009). The upshot? We’re burning more fossil fuels today than 10 years ago. And fossil fuels took up 75 per cent of new energy demand.
Back in 2009, the world used fossil fuels for 80.3 per cent of its energy. Care to guess the percentage 10 years on?
80.2 per cent.
“Despite all the rhetoric, we are nowhere near the necessary paradigm shift,” says the organization’s executive director, Rana Adib.
You can see at a glance that the world is simply using more energy overall. We’re using more renewables, but that’s coming on top of a surge in fossil fuels. In fact, renewables only supplied one-quarter of the increased energy use over the decade.
You’ll often see good news stories about renewable energy overtaking fossil fuels. And it’s undeniably great news that costs for wind, solar and batteries are plummeting. But we tend to overestimate progress because we conflate electricity with energy. Those good news stories are usually talking about just the power sector.
And the power sector is only a small portion of energy use, as REN21 usefully illustrates:
So, that’s the picture at the global level. You might wonder: do things look better in a wealthy country like Canada?
Actually, the pattern looks depressingly similar. We’ve been phasing out coal-fired electricity, but we’re burning more and more oil and gas in our vehicles, buildings and industries. That increase in oil and gas consumption has more than offset the progress in coal, which goes a long way to explaining why Canada’s climate pollution isn’t going down.
REN21 didn’t provide visuals at the country level. But last year, Barry Saxifrage did a similar analysis for Canada. Here are the kinds of energy Canada has been adding:
What you see is that we’ve increased our use of fossil fuels much faster than we’ve built up climate-safe energy. “Climate-safe,” in this case, includes all renewables, hydro and nuclear.
The big reality check is that fossil fuel use is still rising. Renewables and low-carbon energy aren’t even keeping up with new demand, let alone replacing fossil fuels. That’s not to say they couldn’t replace fossil fuels. There are truly amazing things happening on the clean energy front. But the harsh reality is the climate doesn’t respond to the clean energy we deploy, just to the heat-trapping pollution we spew.
Canada announces new international finance
This didn’t get nearly the attention it deserves, but amidst the lacklustre G7 meeting last weekend, Canada made a new pledge to double its contribution to developing nations grappling with climate change. International development groups and climate advocates are applauding the new commitment of $5.3 billion over the next five years.
Eddy Pérez of Climate Action Network Canada congratulated the government: “With this pledge, Canada recognizes that climate finance is at the heart of a successful COP26 and critical to cutting emissions globally. Doubling climate finance and increasing adaptation action also opens a new chapter internationally for Canada to be seen as a partner to low and middle-income countries, in particular those most vulnerable to climate impacts.”
Jobs, jobs, jobs
More than 400,000 Canadians are already working in the clean energy sector, and that number should grow to almost 640,000 by the end of the decade, according to a report out this week from Clean Energy Canada. That growth would more than offset a nine per cent drop in fossil fuel jobs over the same period.
The estimates are based on what would happen with full implementation of the new federal climate plan announced in December. Alberta would see the biggest increase — clean energy jobs in the province would grow 164 per cent this decade.
Little city, big moves
Summerside, P.E.I., is the first stop in Canada’s National Observer’s cross-country tour of cities dealing with climate change. It’s a curious story about a charming little city that inadvertently became a hotbed for clean energy.
Summerside now has the most electric vehicle chargers in Canada (per capita, of course) along with wind farms, solar arrays and industrial-scale lithium-ion batteries.
One of the most interesting initiatives in Summerside is a smart grid that stores energy in homes — not just as electricity but also as heat — when wind and solar are producing more juice than the city needs. As Zack Metcalfe reports, these include “Steffes electric furnaces, which can store heat in ceramic bricks; Rheem Marathon water heaters, which lose less than 0.25 C of heat per day; and Stash Energy heat pumps.” You can read up on the Summerside story here, and stay tuned for stories about cities across the country.
In another series, Patricia Lane has been profiling young Canadians making a difference in the race against climate change. This week, we met Kelsey Brasil, who runs a jobs program for Efficiency Canada. “I think of advocacy as a muscle,” she says. “Each time we take action, we get stronger.”
Drought and fire
Drought and heat are building to horrendous levels across the western U.S. It’s only June, but this week, 50 million people are under heat warnings. In one of those awful multiplier effects that climate scientists have warned about, reservoirs are so low that firefighters in Arizona can’t get water to fight wildfires.
If you can bear it, I highly recommend David Wallace-Wells’ latest, California’s Last Fire Season Was a Historic Disaster. This One Might Be Worse. David wrote The Uninhabitable Earth, so you know you’re not in for light reading but he’s a great and insightful writer. In this article, he looks at how fear is turning from fire to smoke.
“... as scary as the new generation of dashcam footage and drone photography of fire has proven, it was the enveloping and inescapable air horror, in both its aesthetic and respiratory shocks, that seems to have really discolored Californian’s understanding of their own future.”
Boycott Texas oil, Texas will boycott you
Texas is fighting back against companies that move against fossil fuels. The governor signed a bill banning state investments in companies that drop investments in the oil and gas industry.
In a separate bill, Texas also banned state and local governments from working with companies that clamp down on the gun industry. Last month, Texas passed a law stopping cities from banning natural gas hookups after Austin had the temerity to float the idea as part of that city’s climate plan.
Volvo’s deal for green steel
Steel is one of the industries that’s tough to decarbonize and where using hydrogen probably makes a lot of sense — so long as the hydrogen itself can be made without climate pollution.
So, it’s good to see a company stepping up to create demand for steel made with green hydrogen. Volvo has inked a deal to buy steel from a company in northern Sweden that should help drive down the costs of electrolyzers to make hydrogen out of water.
Volvo has also set a self-imposed deadline to sell only battery-electric cars by 2030.
I’ll leave you with a suggestion for a new podcast. Indigenous Climate Action has just launched a new pod. How could you not subscribe with episodes like “Respect the Moose”?
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