I recently asked a group gathered to hear me speak what percentage of the world’s energy is provided by these six renewable sources: solar, wind, geothermal, wave, tidal, and ocean energy.
Then came the guesses: To my left, 25 percent; straight ahead, 30 percent; on my right, 20 percent and 15 percent; a pessimist sitting to the far right, 7 percent.
The group was astonished when I related the actual figure: 1.5 percent. The figure comes from the Paris-based International Energy Agency, a consortium of 30 countries that monitors energy developments worldwide. The audience that evening had been under the gravely mistaken impression that human society was much further along in its transition to renewable energy. Even the pessimist in the audience was off by more than a factor of four.
I hadn’t included hydroelectricity in my list, I told the group, which would add another 2.5 percent to the renewable energy category. But hydro, I explained, would be growing only very slowly since most of the world’s best dam sites have been taken.
The category “Biofuels and waste,” which makes up 9.7 percent of the world total, includes small slivers of what we Americans call biofuels (ethanol and biodiesel), I said, but mostly represents the deforestation of the planet through the use of wood for daily fuel in many poor countries, hardly a sustainable practice that warrants vast expansion. (This percentage has been roughly the same since 1973 though the absolute consumption has more than doubled as population has climbed sharply.) The burden for renewable energy expansion, I concluded, would therefore remain on the six categories I mentioned at the outset of my presentation.
As if to underline this worrisome state of affairs, the MIT Technology Review just days later published a piece with a rather longish title: “At this rate, it’s going to take nearly 400 years to transform the energy system.”
In my presentation I had explained to my listeners that renewable energy is not currently displacing fossil fuel capacity, but rather supplementing it. In fact, I related, the U.S. government’s own Department of Energy with no sense of alarm whatsoever projects that world fossil fuel consumption will actually rise through 2050. This would represent a climate catastrophe, I told my audience, and cannot be allowed to happen.
And yet, the MIT piece affirms that this is our destination on our current trajectory. The author writes that “even after decades of warnings, policy debates, and clean-energy campaigns—the world has barely even begun to confront the problem.”
All this merely serves to elicit the question: What would it take to do what scientists think we need to do to reduce greenhouse gases?
The MIT piece suggests that a total mobilization of society akin to what happened in World War II would have to occur and be maintained for decades to accomplish the energy transition we need to avoid catastrophic climate change.
Few people alive today were alive back then. A somewhat larger group has parents who lived through World War II and so have some inkling of what such a mobilization would involve. It’s hard enough to imagine this group agreeing that their household consumption should be curtailed significantly for decades (through taxes, higher prices and perhaps even rationing) to make way for huge societal investments in vast new wind and solar deployments; electricity storage for all that renewable electricity; mass transit; deep energy retrofits for buildings; energy-efficient vehicles; and even revised diets that are less meat-intensive and thereby less energy-intensive. Even harder to image is the much larger group with a more tenuous or nonexistent connection to the World War II experience embracing such a path.
The trouble with waiting, of course, is that climate change does not wait for us, and also that it shows up with multi-decadal lags. The effects of greenhouse gases emitted decades ago are only now registering on the world’s thermometers. That means that when climate conditions finally become so destructive as to move the public and the politicians to do something big enough to make a difference, it will likely be too late to avoid catastrophic climate change.
One scientist cited by the MIT piece believes that a rise of more than 2 degrees C in global temperature is all but inevitable and that human society would be “lucky” to avoid a rise of 4 degrees by 2100.
But since each increment of temperature rise will inflict more damage, the scientist says, we would be wise to seek to limit temperature rise as much as we are able (even though the odds are now overwhelmingly against staying below a 2 degree rise). No longer are we faced with prevention so much as mitigation and management. That’s still something, and it provides a way forward that doesn’t rely on an increasingly unrealistic goal.
Image: Cartoon showing a race between renewable energy and fossil fuels. Text is in German. Gerhard Mester (2013). “Karikatur von Gerhard Mester zum Thema Energiespeicher und Konkurrenzbedingungen Erneuerbarer Energien.” Via Wikimedia Commons.