Citizen Action Monitor

Growth of renewables hasn’t stopped rise in CO2 emissions, says Canadian expert

Rapid expansion of renewables no reason to be hopeful about curbing climate crisis.

No 2059 Posted by fw, September 21, 2017

Barry Saxifrage

“I read lots of articles these days pointing to the rapid expansion of renewable energy as a reason to be hopeful about our unfolding climate crisis. Unfortunately, the climate doesn’t care how many solar panels and wind farms we build. What determines our climate fate is how much climate-polluting fossil fuels we decide to burn. Renewables are great but only if they actually replace oil, gas, or coal. Sadly, rising renewables haven’t stopped our fossil fuel burn, or our atmosphere’s CO2 from continuing to rise. Instead, the new business-as-usual is one in which we keep expanding both renewables and fossil fuels at the same time.” Barry Saxifrage, National Observer

Chart Guru Barry Saxifrage stays right on message with his latest article. Back in July 2017, his article — a synopsis of which was reposted on this blog under my title — “There is no sign of a turning point in our dependence on fossil fuels,” says Canadian expert, Saxifrage declared:

“Amid all the justified enthusiasm for double-digit growth in clean energy generation, the increasing price-and-reliability parity of renewables, and international commitments to reduce climate-altering carbon emissions, there is one very uncomfortable truth: we’re still burning more fossil fuels each year than the year before.”

In today’s repost, Barry echoes his earlier message, but with a twist – he takes a well-deserved shot at news outlets that routinely hype renewables in their biased articles. Barry doesn’t name names, but one notorious fabricator of hype, in my opinion, is Clean Energy Review, published by Clean Energy Canada, a think tank at Simon Fraser University.  I sent a couple of emails their way months (years?) ago calling for balanced resorting — not even an acknowledgment of receipt.

Below is a repost of Barry’s latest piece, punctuated as usual with his excellent charts to illustrate his main ideas. My post includes added subheadings. To read Barry’s article on the website of the National Observer, click on the following linked title.

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Fossil fuel expansion crushes renewables by Barry Saxifrage, National Observer, September 20, 2017

News about rapid growth of renewable energy is no reason to be hopeful

I read lots of articles these days pointing to the rapid expansion of renewable energy as a reason to be hopeful about our unfolding climate crisis. Unfortunately, the climate doesn’t care how many solar panels and wind farms we build.

Growth of renewables hasn’t stopped continuing rise in CO2 emissions

What determines our climate fate is how much climate-polluting fossil fuels we decide to burn. Renewables are great but only if they actually replace oil, gas, or coal. Sadly, rising renewables haven’t stopped our fossil fuel burn, or our atmosphere’s CO2 from continuing to rise. Instead, the new business-as-usual is one in which we keep expanding both renewables and fossil fuels at the same time.

The best available science says we need climate pollution “reductions of 90 per cent or more between 2040 and 2070.” (see International Panel on Climate Change Fifth Assessment report.)  [For a more recent analysis, see Our chances of avoiding climate crisis are slim to none, says leading climate scientist by Kevin Anderson, posted on June 11, 2017].

Latest report confirms 3 facts – rise of fossil fuel use; fossils account for 85% of energy use; oil and gas expanding

But the latest energy data clearly shows we aren’t reducing fossil fuel burn. Just the opposite. We keep cranking the tap open wider every year. In a recent article, I dug into the latest BP Statistical Review of World Energy to illustrate the climate-sobering fossil fuel side of this story:

  • Fossil fuel use continues to rise every year
  • Fossil fuels continue to supply at least 85 per cent of global energy use
  • Oil and gas are expanding more than other energy sources

After reading that article, Canadian energy expert Dave Hughes pointed me to the equally sobering renewable energy side of the story. Here it is.

Demand growth swamps renewables

Hughes notes that while renewable energy is growing, global energy demand is rising much more.

Chart tells story of global energy demand increase since 2009

To illustrate, I created this new chart from the BP data.

The orange line shows the increase in global energy demand since 2009.

Compare all that new demand to the top green line showing the increase in renewable energy. As you can see, renewables expanded only enough to cover about a quarter of new demand.

In fact, all the expansion of renewables over the last seven years isn’t enough to cover even the single-year demand surge of 2010. Sure that was a big year for demand as the world emerged from a global recession. But those last seven years have also been the all-time biggest years ever for renewable energy.

The situation looks even worse if you don’t like the idea of relying on expanding hydropower dams. That’s because hydropower expanded more than any other renewable over those years. The lower green line shows the increase from all the non-hydro renewables: wind, solar, biofuels and biomass.

So, any guesses what filled that huge gap between renewables and demand? Yep.

Fossil fuel expansion trumps all renewables

Chart shows scale of recent fossil fuel expansion vs. renewables

Instead of prioritizing climate-safe renewables, humanity met most of the rising energy demand by burning ever more fossil carbon. My next chart shows the renewables-crushing scale of the recent fossil fuel expansion.

 

The huge bar on the left shows global fossil fuel burn last year. The tiny right bar shows all renewable energy use last year. Quite a mismatch, eh? But the key thing to notice is the yellow part of each bar. This shows how much each type of energy increased over the last decade.

As you can see, we expanded fossil fuels twice as much as renewables. Actually, 2.4 times more. When people have wanted more energy, they have mostly decided to burn more fossil carbon, not install more renewables.

In fact, as the red arrows show, the last decade’s increase in fossil fuels was so huge that it single-handedly exceeds all the renewable energy supply we’ve ever built.

In other words, all the world’s hydropower dams, solar installations, biomass burning, biofuels and wind farms produce less energy than just the recent expansion in fossil fuels.

The new business as usual: more of both

Chart shows renewables not even close to meeting annual increases in energy demand

Here’s another chart showing how things have played out over the last decade.

The black line shows fossil fuel use. The green line shows renewables. And, again, yellow shows how much each increased over the last decade.

This chart lets you see how both fossil fuels and renewables continue to rise at the same time.

As with the previous chart, the red arrows point out that fossil fuels expanded more in this decade than all renewables combined have ever expanded.

This chart certainly shows that renewables are growing at a good clip. But it also shows that fossil fuels keep expanding even more. There is no indication here that fossil burning is going start declining rapidly as needed. I don’t even see any sign it is going to stop rising!

Instead, the world isn’t even coming close to expanding renewables enough to meet the annual increases in energy demand.

Cherry picking climate hope?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge fan of renewables. I’ve got grid-tie solar panels on my roof and I’m an avid daily reader of the renewable energy press. I see renewables as a critical and necessary part of a climate-sane future.

But renewables aren’t the metric that will determine our climate future. Renewables can — and currently are — prospering even as fossil fuels expand and we accelerate into the climate crisis.

“Focusing on just the positive renewable energy news feels to me like cherry-picking climate hope”

Focusing on just the positive renewable energy news feels to me like cherry-picking climate hope. It’s tempting, for sure, but can distract from what actually determines our climate fate: how much fossil fuel we burn.

Time to turn things around is running out

And by that measure we are still heading ever further from safety while our time to turn around is running out.

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