I’ve previously mentioned that it looks unlikely that the world will come anywhere near their emissions reduction targets for 2030.

We also know that at least 19 major, if local, ecosystems in Australia seem to be collapsing [1], we are worrying if Western Sydney, with existing runs of days over 40 degrees centigrade, is now livable (the same with the Middle East, the Tropics, parts of India and China), the Gulf Stream which keeps the UK and western Europe relatively warm with mild weather is weakening and ice sheet melt is claimed by some to match “the worst-case climate warming scenarios set out by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change”. These are all not good markers of progress.

Despite this, people are still optimistic we are heading in the right direction – but there are also obstacles, such as the apparent Chinese support for coal, the Australian government’s lack of interest in transition, potential decline in Wind power in Europe, Covid recovery boosting established paths of growth, corrupt business practice with offsets and ignoring the rebound effect. These all allow emissions to rise irrespective of an increase in renewables.

I discuss the hope and some of the obstacles below

The Hope

The IEA state:

Driven by China and the United States, net installed renewable capacity will grow by nearly 4% globally in 2020, reaching almost 200 GW [of extra energy]. Higher additions of wind and hydropower are taking global renewable capacity additions to a new record this year, accounting for almost 90% of the increase in total power capacity worldwide….. 

IEA Renewables 2020 November 2020

I presume this is a growth of 4% of the amount of renewables presently in action, not a growth by 4% in total energy supply. Whatever the case, there is still a slight increase in fossil fuel generation, rather than a decrease. As far as I can read the IEA graphs, the world’s total electricity energy production is about 7,500 Twh in 2020, so 200 GW is a small fraction of that (7,500 TWh = 7,500,000 GWh I think!), and if I am reading it correctly, this is only for electricity production, not energy production in total.

The report continues:

Renewables will overtake coal to become the largest source of electricity generation worldwide in 2025. By that time, they are expected to supply one-third of the world’s electricity.

IEA Renewables 2020 November 2020

The question is always whether emissions will be decreasing, not just whether renewables are generating more energy. It is also vital that we distinguish total energy consumption from electrical energy consumption, as progress in making electricity renewable may not translate into making total energy consumption significantly renewable.

Wood Mackenzie, a consulting firm, write:

Renewables are the proven zero-carbon technology where much of the capital funding the energy transition will be invested. Over the next 20 years, Wood Mackenzie expects more than 4 terawatts (TW) of wind and solar power to come on stream globally, taking renewables’ share of the world’s power capacity to 30% from 10% today. Of this new capacity, some 2.6 TW will be solar.

Manghani Total eclipse: How falling costs will secure solar’s dominance in power. Wood Mackenzie January 2021

This is more conservative than the IEA.

Let us be clear. Growth in renewables may not be enough. Our problem has at least two parts. We (1) need to increase renewables to allow us to (2) lower greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by phasing out fossil fuel driven energy supply of all types.

If we simply increase renewables without reducing fossil fuel emissions significantly, then we are still on track for catastrophic climate change. This IEA graph implies as much, with coal decreasing slightly and methane (“Natural Gas”) increasing – there is no indication of what they expect to happen for oil, but they might appear to expect emissions to remain stable, or decline slightly at best.

It is possible the world might even increase renewables and increase GHGs by continuing to increase fossil fuel energy at the same time as increasing renewables.

The Wood Mackenzie Report continues:

the next decade will be marked by steady technological improvements along the entire solar value chain, both in terms of hardware and digitalisation. Inevitably, as the technology improves, it will become cheaper. The key question is, by how much?

Manghani Total eclipse: How falling costs will secure solar’s dominance in power. Wood Mackenzie January 2021

Now it is possible that renewables might become cheaper by a significant amount. It also might not be the case, as implied by the quotation above. Various minerals might go into short supply. Renewable companies could be bought out by fossil fuel companies and prices jacked up. Governments could make hostile regulations. The grid’s may not be improved to cope with the variation in power. It is possible, if unlikely, that we are now close to the most efficient solar and wind panels that are currently practicable in terms of science and manufacturing costs. We don’t know, what we can develop until it is developed. It is not wise to expect technology to appear because we might need it, or because it would be profitable if made….

Even so the expected price drop is not spectacular over 10 years.

Wood Mackenzie expects solar costs to fall another 15% to 25% over the next decade.

Manghani Total eclipse: How falling costs will secure solar’s dominance in power. Wood Mackenzie January 2021

but they also say:

We expect the learning-curve reductions and pace of technological advancement to slow in the 2030s.

Manghani Total eclipse: How falling costs will secure solar’s dominance in power. Wood Mackenzie January 2021

To be slightly less emphatic they write:

Of the 27 countries modelled, we estimate that by 2030, solar will be the lowest-cost generation in 18 countries, up from 3 in 2020.

Manghani Total eclipse: How falling costs will secure solar’s dominance in power. Wood Mackenzie January 2021

So in the crucial decade up to 2030, solar does not become lower cost in a third of the countries modelled.

The not so hopeful

The CO2 readings at Mauna Loa continued to increase over 2020, despite the apparent fall of emissions in the Covid year. This means that despite the supposed collapse of production, we did not lower the cycle of carbon emissions. To lower the levels in the atmosphere, we need far more reductions than produced by the Covid decline.

China and Australia

China is expected to grow its emissions to (at least) 2030. Again this is not going to lower the temperature increase and the climate chaos, because even if they keep expanding their renewables they are also expanding fossil fuels.

China put 38.4 gigawatts (GW) of new coal-fired power capacity into operation in 2020, according to new international research, more than three times the amount built elsewhere around the world and potentially undermining its short-term climate goals.

Including decommissions, China’s coal-fired fleet capacity rose by a net 29.8 GW in 2020, even as the rest of the world made cuts of 17.2 GW, according to research released on Wednesday by Global Energy Monitor (GEM), a U.S. think tank, and the Helsinki-based Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA)…..

China approved the construction of a further 36.9 GW of coal-fired capacity last year, three times more than a year earlier, bringing the total under construction to 88.1 GW. It now has 247 GW of coal power under development, enough to supply the whole of Germany.

Stanway China’s new coal power plant capacity in 2020 more than three times rest of world’s: study. Reuters, 3 February 2021

This is not a lone claim.

China dominated investments in new coal power plants in 2020, opening three-quarters of the world’s newly funded capacity. It also accounted for more than four-fifths of newly announced coal power projects.

A total of 38 gigawatts (GW) of new coal – about one large coal plant per week – was added to the grid and a total of 73GW of planned new projects were announced, while less than 9GW was retired.

Myllyvirta Analysis: China’s CO2 emissions surged 4% in second half of 2020. Carbon Brief 1 March 2021

China’s emissions are extremely likely to increase rapidly given this build and potential build. This could also be seen in China’s emissions response to Covid.

While emissions fell approximately 3% in the first half of the year amid lockdowns, the second half made up for lost time, with emissions climbing more than 4%. In total across 2020, CO2 emissions increased by 1.5% compared with 2019….

Whereas the annual increase of just 1.5% continues the recent downward trend in China’s emissions growth, the surge in the second half of the year points in a different direction….

Policymakers doubled down on the old playbook of stimulating the dirtiest and most energy-intensive sectors – construction, heavy manufacturing – to offset weakness elsewhere.

Myllyvirta Analysis: China’s CO2 emissions surged 4% in second half of 2020. Carbon Brief 1 March 2021

China is also apparently attempting to finance coal fired energy in other countries.

Chinese state-owned firms are investing billions in coal power abroad, which are not counted in the domestic carbon neutral calculations…

The new carbon-belching power stations already under construction will produce 19 gigawatts of power and emit 115 million tonnes each year, data from Boston University’s Global Development Policy Center showed….

China has nearly three-times more in the pipeline abroad, meaning its overseas plants would emit more than the current emissions of major economies such as Britain, Turkey and Italy, according to figures in British Petroleum’s annual review of global energy.

China is making the overseas coal play as part of its trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative, a plan to fund infrastructure projects and increase its sway overseas….

The foreign plants the Chinese firms are currently building include the $3 billion Sengwa power plant in Zimbabwe—one of the largest in Africa… There are also at least eight projects in Pakistan, including a $2 billion plant in the restive region of Balochistan.

Roxborough China’s foreign coal push risks global climate goals. Phys.org 10 December 2020

The aim seems to be to provide a market for the building of coal energy, and for the sale of coal, keeping up a Chinese industry without it counting towards China’s own emissions. Whether intentional or not, that is the likely result along with massive increase of emissions for many years to come.

This should not be that much of a surprise. Given the remarks of Li Keqiang, member of the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of the CPC Central Committee, Premier of the State Council, and Director of the National Energy Commission, at a meeting of the National Energy Commission.

Li Keqiang pointed out that it is necessary to base on my country’s basic national conditions and development stages, diversify the development of energy supply, and improve the level of energy security. According to my country’s coal-based energy resource endowment, scientifically plan the layout of coal development, accelerate the construction of large coal and electricity transmission channels, promote safe and green coal mining and clean and efficient development of coal power, and effectively develop and utilize coalbed methane. Increase domestic oil and gas exploration and development efforts, promote reserves and production, and improve oil and gas self-sufficiency. Deepen open, win-win, and diversified international oil and gas cooperation. Enhance oil and gas safety reserves and emergency support capabilities. Develop renewable energy sources such as hydropower, wind power, and photovoltaics to increase the level of clean energy consumption. Focus on shortcomings and promote the construction of major energy projects.

China Government Network. ‘Li Keqiang presided over a meeting of the National Energy Commission’ via Google translate?, 11 October 2019

We can note the same strategy in Australia with the Government’s hoped for gas lead recovery and continued sales of fossil fuels to overseas and local markets, and promoted by the Murdoch Empire, for example:

Gas generators needed to fight price spikes

NSW must ramp up gas production to combat huge spikes in power prices following dozens of low electricity supply days in 2020, the federal government has warned.

Daily Telegraph

The Minister Angus Taylor, blamed renewables for these huge spikes in power prices, while we can read that the Market regulator remarked the problem occurred because of the failure of coal generation, and the jacking up of prices of fossil fuel power. The Federal Government resists emissions targets and is ‘technology neutral’, which means it can promote more expensive, and more destructive, fossil fuels as a solution.

There was some hope in China when President Xi Jinping announced China would go carbon neutral by 2060. Some were enthusiastic. But, when the 5 year plan was announced, reports suggested:

China’s five-year plan is “underwhelming and shows little sign of a concerted switch away from a future coal lock-in,” said Swithin Lui, of NewClimate Institute, and the China lead for Climate Action Tracker. The independent watchdog rates China’s efforts as “highly insufficient” to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement….

Chinese premier Li Keqiang… said China will “expedite” its transition to a green development model with “a major push to develop new energy sources” while “promoting the clean and efficient use of coal”.

Premier Li announced a target of reaching 20% of renewable and nuclear energy in total energy consumption by 2020.

Farand. China makes no shift away from coal in five-year plan as it ‘crawls’ to carbon neutrality. Climate Home News. 5 March 2021

‘Clean coal’ is slightly better than dirty coal, but it is not a solution – especially if it is in addition to ordinary coal or lignite, rather than in replacement.

the plan contains no absolute emissions targets, and is light on any detail of comprehensive, workable strategies to make China’s energy sector emissions free… [There was a] target to reduce emissions intensity by 18 per cent by 2025…. [But] China’s emissions have carried on rising over the last five years even with emissions intensity reduction…

If the rest of the world miraculously stopped emitting CO2 overnight, China would still exhaust the whole world’s carbon budget within 30 years – 10 years before it says it will reach net zero.

Fernyhough. China’s Five Year Plan disappoints with “baby steps” on climate policy. RenewEconomy, 8 March 2021

Emissions intensity can be the measure of emissions with respect to the total energy output, the measure of CO2 per kilowatt hour of electricity consumed, or carbon emissions per unit of GDP. It is often unclear, however, the more energy you output through renewables as a proportion of total electricity consumption, the less ‘intense’ the emissions are, even if those emissions have increased.

The cap on energy consumption which was part of the previous five year plan, seems to have been removed.

Wind Power in Europe

Another problem we face here is the apparent slowdown of Windpower in Europe. The 14.7 gigawatts of new capacity installed over 2020, was down 6% from 2019 and down 19% on Wind Europe’s expectations for the year. Sure Covid was possibly a problem, but Covid is not over, and we are not immune from other crises. In Germany:

six out of the seven onshore wind auctions held in 2020 were undersubscribed. Only 2.7 GW out of the 3.9 GW on offer were awarded because there weren’t enough projects permitted

Joshi European wind power weathers Covid19, but faces headwinds. RenewEconomy 4 March 2021

Wind Europe also remarked that “388 MW [of wind turbines] were fully decommissioned across Europe during 2020, while 345 MW were repowered – a net loss of 40 MW.”

The organisation expects Europe to install 105 gigawatts of new wind power over 2021 to 2025, with 70% of that comprised of onshore wind. However, if governments fail to put in place repowering strategies, loosen permitting and if COVID19 impacts worsen, this could be at or lower than  80 gigawatts.

Joshi European wind power weathers Covid19, but faces headwinds. RenewEconomy 4 March 2021

Covid Recovery

Just one quote here, as that is depressing enough.

Only a handful of major countries are pumping rescue funds into low-carbon efforts such as renewable power, electric vehicles and energy efficiency. A new Guardian ranking finds the EU is a frontrunner, devoting 30% of its €750bn (£677bn) Next Generation Recovery Fund to green ends. France and Germany have earmarked about €30bn and €50bn respectively of their own additional stimulus for environmental spending.

On the other end of the scale, China is faring the worst of the major economies, with only 0.3% of its package – about £1.1bn – slated for green projects. In the US, before the election, only about $26bn (£19.8bn), or just over 1%, of the announced spending was green….

In at least 18 of the world’s biggest economies…. pandemic rescue packages are dominated by spending that has a harmful environmental impact, such as bailouts for oil or new high-carbon infrastructure…

[For example] Canada… is spending C$6bn (£3.5bn) of its infrastructure funding on home insulation, green transport and clean energy, but its total rescue package is worth more than $300bn and contains measures such as a massive road expansion and tax relief for fossil fuel companies…..

Niklas Höhne, of the NewClimate Institute, one of the partner organisations behind Climate Action Tracker, warned: “What we’re seeing more of is governments using the pandemic recovery to roll back climate legislation and bail out the fossil fuel industry, especially in the US, but also in Brazil, Mexico, Australia, South Africa, Indonesia, Russia, Saudi Arabia and other countries.”

Harvey. Revealed: Covid recovery plans threaten global climate hopes. The Guardian, 9 November 2020

Offsetting fraud?

Another problem arises through carbon accounting. We need this to reach “net zero” emissions. Reaching net zero is relatively straightforward for electricity and transport – “are you generating Greenhouse gases or not?” But for some sectors of the economy this is much harder – say agriculture – and for some it its currently impossible – air travel. For such industries we need carbon removal and that is much harder to calculate. Sometimes that will be done by offsets, such as sponsoring re-forestation, or possibly by technology (although not much yet). However, reforestation is tricky. I have seen reforestation projects which looked pretty tatty, and locals told us that the trees had been planted and left to die in the drought, or planted on entirely unsuitable land, with no regard for the normal variety of trees in the area. In some cases offsets can put extra strain on ecologies. The big issue is of course, who verifies that the offsets are real and working? If a private company that leads to possible corruption as they are beholden to those they are checking, and if done by Government, then a pro-corporate government can just cut back funding for checking and it does not happen.

This kind of process can lead to a situation in which people like Shell announce they plan to expand their emissions, rather than decrease them, via offsets, or by selling some of their fossil fuel fields to other people (perhaps cutting their emissions, but not cutting global emissions), or by increasing emissions and simultaneously increasing their use and supply of renewables and thus decreasing their energy intensity. There is effectively no reduction in emissions.

Similarly we can see corporate avoidance here:

Mark Carney, a leading figure behind this year’s global climate talks [said his investment company] “Brookfield is in a position today where we are net zero,”… referring to all of the company’s assets. “The reason we’re net zero is that we have this enormous renewables business,” he added, noting “all the avoided emissions that come with that” had compensated for the planet-warming toll of other investments.

Shankelman & Rathi Mark Carney Walks Back Brookfield Net-Zero Claim After Criticism. Bloomberg, 26 Feburary 2021

This was so blatant an avoidance that it attracted criticism, but Brookfield stated “it stands by its net-zero claim”. However, avoiding some extra emissions does not lower emissions from other sources.

It is also possible to buy old carbon credits which do not reduce any current emissions.

at the moment, 600 million to 700 million tonnes of old carbon credits could be claimed in the carbon offset market – seven to eight times the current annual demand. Were these all to be claimed it would swamp the market, meaning companies buying cheap credits from projects with little or no additionality, and so little or no climate benefit.

Maslin & Lewis Outdated carbon credits from old wind and solar farms are threatening climate change efforts. The Conversation. 14 January 2021

An article in the Guardian remarks:

many companies and countries are using “net zero” to justify expanding the production of fossil fuels….

Take Canadian oil giant Enbridge, for example. In November, it committed to a target of “net zero” emissions. In spite of that commitment, the company has pushed forward with blasting and bulldozing a new tar-sands pipeline through sensitive waterways and Indigenous lands… The pipeline, if completed, would have the impact of opening 50 new coal-fired power plants or adding 38m new gasoline vehicles to our roads….

Even as fossil fuel companies admit the climate crisis is a real and pressing issue, they’re continuing to build out infrastructure to support 120% more fossil fuels than the world can burn in a 1.5C scenario. Not to mention that they’re also spending billions of dollars lobbying governments to weaken climate policy.

Berman & Taft Global oil companies have committed to ‘net zero’ emissions. It’s a sham. The Guardian, 3 March 2021

So, as we might expect, in some cases business would rather fiddle the rules than engage in cutbacks of emissions.

The final part of this blog reports on one paper (that is it is hardly definitative), which reinvigorates debates about energy use by suggesting that the majority of official models for the energy transition are inadequate and way too optimistic.

Rebound and Jevons effects

The rebound and Jevons effects basically assert that the more energy there is, perhaps because of energy efficiency measures, the more people will use it. The new use may significantly reduce the expected savings, or even consume more than is saved. In the 19th Century Jevons noted that efficiency improvement in the steam engine did not lower the demand for coal, but increased it. He famously said:

It is wholly a confusion of ideas to suppose that the economical use of fuel is equivalent to a diminished consumption. The very contrary is the truth… It is the very economy of its use which leads to its extensive consumption.

Jevons, The Coal Question: An inquiry concerning the progress of the nation. London. Macmillan 1886 (2nd Edition). p.123-4

Paul Brockway and Steve Sorrell give some examples:

energy efficient lighting saves energy, but also makes lighting cheaper, which, in turn, encourages people to light up larger areas to higher levels [of brightness?] over longer periods of time.  

Widespread adoption of energy-efficient lighting may also bring down the price of electricity, which could further encourage increased consumption

Brockway and Sorrell Guest post: Why ‘rebound effects’ may cut energy savings in half. Carbon Brief 2 March 2021

They give a nice image of the loops in a more fuel efficient car:

Brockway and Sorrell write that:

In a new paper, published in Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, we examine the economy-wide impact of these effects and find they may erode more than half of the potential energy savings from improved energy efficiency.

We also find that these rebound effects are not adequately included in the global energy and climate models used by organisations, such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the International Energy Agency (IEA), which means they may underestimate the future growth of global energy demand.

As a result, there is a risk that global climate action relies too heavily on energy savings that may not materialise.

Brockway and Sorrell Guest post: Why ‘rebound effects’ may cut energy savings in half. Carbon Brief 2 March 2021

They point out that, in normal terms, the health of economies are defined in terms of GDP growth, and that often requires expansion of energy use. For example McKinsey Ward state that their research:

suggests that we’re beginning to see a decoupling between the rates of economic growth and energy demand, which in the decades ahead will become even more pronounced [because]… new technologies and larger trends should cause the energy demand curve to flatten…… [They predict]

* a steep decline in energy intensity of GDP, primarily the consequence of a continuing shift from industrial to service economies in fast-growing countries such as India and China

* a marked increase in energy efficiency, the result of technological improvements and behavioral changes

*the rise of electrification, in itself a more efficient way to meet energy needs in many applications

*the growing use of renewables—resources that don’t need to be burned to generate power—a trend with the potential not only to flatten the primary energy demand curve but also to utterly change the way we think about power

Sharma et al The decoupling of GDP and energy growth: A CEO guide. McKinsey Quarterly 24 April 2019

Brockway and Sorell the IPCC and IEA use models with similar assumptions

however, there is no historical precedent for absolute decoupling at the global level – and only limited experience at a national level. 

Brockway and Sorrell Guest post: Why ‘rebound effects’ may cut energy savings in half. Carbon Brief 2 March 2021

The other problem is as they say “Economy-wide rebound effects are extremely difficult to measure.” They studied 21 previous studies which:

 gave a mean estimate of 58% rebound, with a median estimate of 55%, implying that more than half of the potential energy savings from the modelled efficiency improvements were not achieved.  [Another 12 studies using different measures] found a mean estimate of 71% rebound.

Brockway and Sorrell Guest post: Why ‘rebound effects’ may cut energy savings in half. Carbon Brief 2 March 2021

They then researched the models used by BP, Shell, the IEA and the US Energy Information Administration and found “most of these models.. were unable to capture many of the mechanisms contributing to rebound effects”. Some could be said to cut out the possibility of rebound effects completely. In which case, it is unlikely that we will successfully lower energy consumption or find it as easy, as we might think to reduce fossil fuel emissions, even with greater energy efficiency (saving energy) and more renewables. The rebound effect will surprise us.

The next post will treat the problems of the Energy Charter Treaty, which also presents apparent problems for attempts to decrease emissions.