In his remarks at the June launch of the 68th annual edition of the BP Statistical Review, BP’s chief economist Spencer Dale pointed out a growing mismatch between hopes for a global transition to a carbon-neutral economy, and the stark reality of actual trends in global energy consumption. According to Dale, the global economy is on an “unsustainable path” - an obvious but strikingly honest and direct statement from a man who is perhaps the global oil and gas industry’s most influential energy economist.
BP’s latest data tells a troubling, though familiar, story. Despite the global terawatt hour supply of renewable energy growing by a staggering 1144% over the last 20 years, the proportion of total energy generation occupied by coal has remained unchanged at 38%. Let’s be clear, that’s the same percentage share of a much larger denominator – in 20 years, final energy consumption has grown by over 50%. This ultimately means that, regardless of the spectacular strides made towards deploying renewable energy around the world, gross carbon emissions have increased by 144%.
For some perspective, consider the fact that the Kyoto Protocol was signed 22 years ago. Article 3 of this document committed developed nations to reducing their emissions to a minimum of 5% below 1990 levels by 2012. Although these few nations did manage to reach this target on aggregate, BP’s statistics show that by 2012, global emissions still exceeded 1990 levels by over 51%.
This reflects a broader trend in global energy consumption patterns: many post-industrial, slow-growing economies have made strides in reigning in carbon emissions, while demand for fossil fuels in developing and emerging economies has boomed. Over the past decade, emissions in North America and Europe have declined year-on-year. In the Asia-Pacific, however, emissions have climbed by an average of 2.6%. Although the International Energy Agency expects the overall share of fossil fuels in the energy mix to decline from 81% to 74% by 2040, again, that will still be 74% of a much larger denominator.
What this data confirms is that, despite many pockets of progress that are exceeding even some of the most optimistic predictions, the global power sector is not decarbonizing fast enough to offset extremely rapid growth in total power sector demand. The volume of carbon emissions that are either very likely or certain to be emitted over the medium-to-long term just does not square with the global carbon budget. As Spencer Dale observed, renewable energy capacity would have needed to have grown at twice the rate that it did over the previous three years just to keep total emissions even. Even though renewable energy is now the fastest growing fuel in history, this is unlikely to be enough.
It’s time to talk about adaptation
As a result of this, the American Meteorological Society believes there is now a 90% probability that the world will experience warming between 3.5 to 7.4 degrees Celsius by 2100. The likely consequences of this kind of temperature rise are widely known. However, public discussions between and within states, while explicitly acknowledging the likely consequences of climate change, mostly fail to engage with the task of developing practical solutions to these challenges. Instead, discussions on climate change continue to revolve largely around the theme of prevention through internationally coordinated emissions cuts.
There are several reasons why this has to change. The first is that climate change is already having a significant impact on climate sensitive populations around the world. Recent research has directly linked droughts in places as diverse as sub-Saharan Africa, the US, and Australia with climate change effects. The UNHCR expects that by mid-century, anywhere between 50 to 200 million people will be on the move as a result of sudden and gradual environmental changes. And yet, although climate change adaptation as a policy objective is gaining traction within bureaucratic circles, public political debates in the countries that are best placed to respond to such eventualities remain stuck firmly behind the curve.
Mitigating the impact of climate change on cities, coastal populations, global supply chains, and food and water security will require huge investments in new infrastructure and technology, as well as new institutional mechanisms and policies for dealing with climate related economic and social dislocation. These kinds of projects cannot be achieved overnight. In order to fulfil these demands, governments, both individually and as a community of states, as well private companies and other major actors, will need to engage in extensive stakeholder engagement and complex planning over very long-term horizons. Governments around the world will not be able to achieve many of these objectives without broad support from their citizens. This is why the public discussion about climate change adaptation must begin now, so as to avoid playing catch-up when the worst effects of climate change begin to materialise.
Peter Humphreys is an honours student at the University of Queensland School of Political Science and International Studies. His thesis focuses on the political economy of Russia’s natural gas export sector.