The term ‘energy security’ has become popular again after February 2022 when Russian troops invaded Ukraine and the subsequent events. These events led to widespread oil and gas supply disruptions and price rise, from below $80/ barrel in January 2022 to over $115/barrel by late March /early April, sending many economies into a downward spiral. Many European countries were forced to scramble for alternatives, as they were heavily dependent on Russian petroleum and natural gas. This was when in the northern latitude countries, winter was almost at its peak, and demand for oil and gas was high. Apart from this, several heavily industrialised countries, like Germany, have a high dependence on Russian gas imports for their industrial economies. The sabotaging of the main pipeline to carry Russian gas to Germany, Nord Stream 1 & 2, in September 2022 in the Baltic Sea underwater area (evidence points to the US intelligence agencies, the US President’s open declaration in February 2022 in the presence of the German Chancellor, being a clear indication), added to the already serious energy crisis, by preventing the possibility of any early resumption. The US-led sanctions against Russia and the US’s coercive use of its dominance of the global financial transaction systems also made the purchase of Russian oil difficult for many importing countries in the early months, though this has started a not-so-silent move away from total dependence on the US dollar as the exchange currency (this merits a separate article), as many governments were alarmed by the US’s frequent and illegal capture of their foreign currency reserves.
The Energy and Emission story: If one takes a close look at the global primary energy consumption by source and how this has changed over time, it becomes clear that the world is still heavily dependent on Oil and Natural Gas, up to 52% even in 2021 (including coal, will take this to 77%). This is despite all the announcements about the ‘great strides in new renewables’, which formed a mere 06.28% of global primary energy consumption in 2021, despite their being the dominant new installations, with hydropower adding a similar percentage.
Facing a shortage of oil and gas, the preferred fossil fuels, several countries started increasing their dependence on coal, which is the most carbon-intensive and pollution-intensive fossil fuel. Even self-declared climate champions like countries in Western Europe including the economic powerhouse Germany followed this path. Developing countries having access to coal, like China, India, Indonesia, and many others increased their coal use to compensate for the initial shock of oil and gas shortage and price rise. As a result, even with some climate actions, global emissions again rose (Global energy-related CO2 emissions grew by 0.9% or 321 Mt in 2022, reaching a new high of over 36.8 Gt). Both 2021 and 2022 saw a rise, after a COVID-forced dip in 2020. Though this is not as high as some analysts feared, it’s far from the urgent reduction goals set by the IPCC (which is a conservative inter-governmental body). This is despite a drop in emissions from Land Use Change.
The story of stalled climate action: The first part of the story was on Energy and increased emissions of Green House Gases (GHGs) from burning the three fossil fuels, Coal, Oil, and Gas. On the other side of the story, climate action, a lot has happened in the same year, 2022, just gone by. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the body tasked with working on the science of climate change and its meaningful redressal methods, started releasing its latest and most comprehensive sixth assessment report (AR6), with the first report on Physical Science Basis of Climate Change (Working Group I). This showed the already happened changes and the trajectory and was released in October 2022, just before the 27th Conference of Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (CoP-27 of UNFCCC) in Sharm el Shaikh, Egypt. The three reports (WG I, WG II, and WG III) clearly stated that to have even a 50% chance of not crossing the first climate red line, the average temperature rise of 1.5 C above the pre-industrial average, the world has to reach peak emissions no later than 2025 and reduce total emissions by at least 45% before the year 2030. This demands that each year global emissions come down by 7% or more. What is happening is completely opposite though, with the global CO2 concentrations rising by about 2 ppm (parts per million) every year.
We as a global community (with very different contributions to the problem by the rich and the poor, though) have long passed the conservative limit for a safe climate many top climate scientists have asked for (starting with the renowned James Hansen), the 350 ppm mark. It helps to remind us that the Earth has not seen this high – 421 ppm – CO2 level in its atmosphere in at least the past three million years before the earliest human Homo Habilis appeared on Earth. And the level at the beginning of the ‘industrial revolution’ was around 279 ppm. Thus, in the past 200-odd years, humans have added 50% to the atmospheric CO2 concentration. A rate of rise not seen at any time on the Earth before.
That a drastic reduction of emissions was the demand of most of the climate scientists and of us, the climate justice activists from across the world, was obviously ‘unrealistic’. But neither the governments of the oil, gas, and coal-producing nations nor those that import these fossil fuels, were in any mood to listen to the climate warnings. Partly in their defence, one can visualize the immense pressure of the population facing a cold winter without heating fuel, the resulting protests (many such happened), or the many industrial workers losing jobs due to a sharp drop in available fuels to run the industrial machines. And in today’s world dominated by big finance, it was more important pressure for the humongous investments and profits of the fossil fuel corporations that worked wonders in favour of continuing our addiction to these fossils, with the oil companies making record profits of $219 billion.
And energy is Not just electricity, or your motor fuel or cooking gas. Every material product (the ‘embedded energy’ in it), every service, and every communication (including every WhatsApp message, every email, and every Facebook post) involves an expenditure of external energy, while about 77% of that globally (higher in India, China, etc) still comes from climate-damaging fossil fuels. Food is our most vital energy source, and every calorie of food we produce through our industrial-chemical agriculture needs anything between 6-10 calories of external energy input; 10 Calories in, 1 Calorie Out—The Energy We Spend on Food, apart from the energy of the Sunlight. And again, nearly 80% of that is still provided by fossil fuels (in that sense, we don’t eat rice or wheat or dal, but rather eat mostly fossil fuels). Mobility is the lifeblood of our interconnected civilization, and almost 90% of our transportation energy still comes from fossil fuels. Most buildings – residences, offices, commercial centres, hospitals, and schools are heated or cooled, or ventilated, using energy a large part of which comes from fossil fuels. The list can go on and on and on.
Though our breed of climate justice activists and alarmed climate scientists are giving increasingly shrill warnings about the impending climate chaos unless we shun fossil fuels very fast, human beings (or almost all life for that matter) are biologically and psychologically geared to first preserving their wellbeing at the present, rather than preserving a future, however close or threatened that future may be. Call it short-sightedness or suicidal, that is the choice made by most people and other life forms, leaving a very small minority trying to chart out a balanced path for long-term sustainability. And after well over two decades of the slow growth of low-carbon energies, dictated largely by vested interests of fossil fuel companies and big financial entities (but also various other factors), the task of a fast enough energy transition (even leaving the question of climate justice, or just transition, for a moment) looks increasingly Himalayan or ‘Everestsque’. Is it still possible to avoid the worst effects of climate change, by limiting the temperature rise to not more than 1.5 C above pre-industrial? The IPCC and the International Energy Agency say there is a theoretical possibility, if the global economies do what has never been done before as shown in this chart by Christoph Bertram, Ottmar Edenhofer, and Gunnar Luderer.
As can be seen, by any such zero-emission (or “net-zero” – the popular presentation) achievement pathway, each year that we delay an all-out effort for this transition, the path will become even harder (the curve becomes steeper). Going by what is happening in the global energy scenarios—whether in rich industrialised or developing and industrialising countries, the present already steep pathway to zero emission by or before 2050—the minimum requirement for any chance to avoid triggering catastrophic climate change, seems increasingly remote. Evolutionary changes that we are seeing are far too slow to avoid the crisis, but revolutions take place once only so rarely, and that too, when a fairly significant percentage of the people are mobilised. A very tough ask.
Soumya Dutta, works with MAUSAM (Movement for Advancing Understanding on Sustainability And Mutuality), and SAPACC (South Asian Peoples’ Action on Climate Crisis)
Centre for Financial Accountability is now on Telegram. Click here to join our Telegram channel and stay tuned to the latest updates and insights on the economy and finance.