To avoid dramatic climate system tipping points, the world needs to decarbonise very quickly and start drawing down the level of carbon in the atmosphere, because it’s already unsafe. As one dramatic example, in past periods when greenhouse levels were similar to the current level, temperatures were 3–6°C higher and sea levels around 25–40 metres higher than in 1900.
So climate warming is now an existential risk to human civilisation, that is, an adverse outcome that would either annihilate intelligent life or permanently and drastically curtail its potential. It is now too late for incremental, measured steps to protect what we care about. Winning slowly is now the same as losing.
So how are we going with our energy system? It is the predominant source of the dramatic human-caused rise in the level of greenhouse gases, which over the last century has increased 70 percent, from 280 parts per million carbon dioxide equivalent (ppm CO2e) to 480 ppm CO2e.
The question is pertinent, with the Guardian reporting last week, “Rise in global carbon emissions a 'big step backwards', says BP” on news that global electricity emissions rose 1.6% in 2017 after flatlining for the previous three years, despite renewable power generation growing by 17% last year, because “strong economic growth led to above-average energy demand, coal use bounced back in China and efficiency gains slowed down, causing emissions to jump”.
And there was this from China:
Monstrous industrial numbers in May in China: thermal power generation +10% on year, crude steel +9%, coal production +4% https://t.co/g3cE5HlHsy— Lauri Myllyvirta (@laurimyllyvirta) June 15, 2018
Here’s the story in six easy charts.
1. Cost of new electricity generation
|Chart 1: Average energy cost in North America|
2. Coal closures
|Chart 2: Coal additions and retirements|
The IEA says global coal investment has already peaked and is now in a “dramatic slowdown”. This fall in investment means coal capacity growth is slowing, as the left chart shows, but it is still positive. The number of new plants under construction each year is falling faster, down 73% since 2015, according to the latest annual status report from CoalSwarm, Greenpeace and the Sierra Club, so that now new plant openings are offset by plant closures. All this means that global coal power capacity could peak as soon as 2022, the status report says.
3. GDP and energy growth
|Chart 1: Global GDP, energy demand and energy-related emissions|
But what is troubling here is that energy-related carbon dioxide emissions (blue line) grew at about the same rate as energy use. This graph suggests that there has been no improvement in the carbon intensity of energy this century. Is this true, and how could it be so?
4. Energy use by sector
|Chart 4: Global energy consumption|
5. Global energy trends by sector over the last 50 years
South Australian-based engineer Shane White has been looking at the recent energy data. It’s a difficult problem of comparing apples and oranges, because the output of wind and solar farms, hydro and nuclear is measured in kilowatt hours of electricity, whilst coal, oil and gas have traditionally been normalised in tonnes of oil equivalent (toe).
|Chart 5A: Global energy consumption 1965-2017|
But an alternative and experimental approach that avoids the above assumption, says White, is to convert all the energy sources into that most basic energy unit the joule (J). We know the embodied energy of oil, coal and gas in units of Joules. And for non-fossil electric sources, it’s very simple, because one kilowatt hour is equivalent to 3,600J.
Using this method, White analysed the data and came up with two stunning charts. The first is global energy consumption by fuel type 1965-2016. Here we can see more clearly how expanding oil (deep green) and gas (red) are still dominating global energy use, expanding more rapidly than all non-fossil fuel sources combined (Chart 5A). The chart is also presented in a stacked version (Chart 5B). White’s full analysis is available here.
|Chart 5B: Global energy consumption |
|Chart 6A: Global carbon intensity of energy 1965-2017 (1965 = 1)|
|Chart 6B: Decarbonisation rate|