With the New Year and newly minted, well-intentioned resolutions upon us, I thought it might be a good time to post some compass readings with respect to the world energy picture. My year-end summary emphasized the growing importance of natural gas as an energy source, and the piece that came after that described America’s soon-to-be emergence as the leading producer of oil and gas.
A new announcement this week puts these discussions, as well as our recent gains in sustainable energy into perspective, dramatically revealing how much further we still have to go when we look at the global picture. The Worldwatch Institute report points out that while oil still represents the largest energy source, both coal and natural gas have seen significant increases in production and consumption. The report, which tracks usage through the end of 2011, says that coal consumption increased by 5.4 percent, while natural gas usage rose 2.2 percent.
This brings coal’s share of the energy mix up to 28 percent, the highest percentage on record since the IEA began tracking this data in 1971 (it was likely higher than that at some point before that year). The increase comes despite rising global awareness of carbon’s role in causing climate change, and despite coal being the largest carbon-emitting energy source of all.
Seventy percent of global demand came from countries outside of the OECD, mainly India and China. In fact, China alone accounted for nearly 50 percent of all demand. The U.S. was the second largest user, though it saw a decrease in consumption of roughly 5 percent which was offset by shale gas and wind. In 2008, coal accounted for 50 percent of all U.S. electric generation. That number is expected to drop to 30 percent by 2020. Despite the decline, the U.S. still accounts for 45 percent of all OECD consumption.
India had the second highest coal consumption growth rate and is expected to overtake the U.S. as number two by 2025, becoming the largest net importer of coal, much of which will come from the U.S., which has the largest reserves of any country. China, which is third, after Russia, has substantial reserves, which is one of the reasons they are burning it so freely to power their rapidly growing economy. During the decade from 2001-11, China accounted for 80 percent of the increase in global demand.
So while U.S. coal consumption continues to drop, production remains steady, with an export boom underway. Exports have doubled in just the past three years.
So, in essence, all the coal that we have stopped burning domestically, is being burned in China and India instead, plus a whole lot more.
That might be good for coal producers (though mining jobs continue to fall primarily due to automation), but it is not good for anyone concerned about curbing carbon emissions in an effort to rein in a runaway climate.
So, what is China doing about this? Do they merely have their heads in the sand? Are they blithely ignoring the problem while focusing exclusively on economic growth?
While it is easy for us to point fingers, we should keep in mind that people who live in glass houses, otherwise known as greenhouses, should not throw stones. The fact is that China is doing quite a bit to curb emissions. True, they are producing lots of carbon, but they are using it far more effectively than we ever did. Over the past twenty years, China has reduced the amount of carbon emitted per unit of GDP faster than any other nation. Their 12th Five Year Plan, which covers 2011-15, contains a number of substantial carbon reduction initiatives. Among these are:
- Increase the proportion of non-fossil fuels in energy consumption to 11.4 percent by 2015
- Reduce energy per unit of gross domestic product (GDP) by 16 percent by 2015
- Reduce carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP by 17 percent by 2015
Additionally, as part of UN climate negotiations, China pledged to increase forest coverage by 40 million hectares and forest stock volume by 1.3 billion cubic meters compared to 2005, by 2020.
China also plans to establish carbon trading markets in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangdong, which may go national by 2015.
They also claim the world’s largest installed base of renewable electricity generation. China’s investment in clean energy surged this past year, growing 92 percent in 2Q to $18.3 billion, or a little over 30 percent of the global total. China has also surpassed the U.S. in smart grid investment and in wind power. Chinese wind generation capacity is projected to roughly double by 2015.
Of course, both the U.S. and China can do a lot more to speed the transition. Neither country has demonstrated anything close to Germany’s commitment to renewables, though, of course, circumstances vary.
China’s rapid growth follows the contours of the economic landscape, in which energy plays a major role. The passage of a carbon tax in the U.S., therefore, could possibly be the largest single step to drive progress on this critically urgent issue.
What else can be done? Peter Ward, a professor of Biology and Earth Science at the University of Washington, and an expert on extinctions, says that we should stop exporting coal to China.
Whether we could muster the political will in Washington to take such a principled stand in the face of protests over government intervention in business and job losses, is questionable at best. But, as Ward points out, these seemingly drastic choices will likely pale in comparison to the choices that will probably be foisted upon our descendants.
RP Siegel, PE, is an inventor, consultant and author. He co-wrote the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water in an exciting and entertaining format. Now available on Kindle.
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