“I’ve been working on #climatechange for 20+ years, and I’ve never been more optimistic that we have the will, capital and technology to solve this wicked problem we’ve made for ourselves. Keep going.” Gerald Butts on Twitter
Ugh. Social media. I try to keep my feeds to interesting subjects, but every now and then something like the above sneaks in. This tweet from Mr. Butts took me to his Twitter feed. I sighed and reached for the Advil. Retweets from Greta, climate emergency is happening, yadda yadda. Then it got worse – a retweet of output from the formless abomination that is Mark Carney’s incipient political rising. Without even noticing, I’d put down the Advil and begun sawing on my wrist with a steak knife (from the free portion of Carney’s book, which I would not pay for if I had Musk money: “At a minimum, workers need to work for long enough to regenerate their labour power; receiving an amount equivalent to a subsistent wage. But their labour power is such that they can work longer and, if they do, surplus value is created. The genius of capitalism is to make this happen, and for capitalists to then pocket the vast majority of the associated surplus value, paying workers only a wage sufficient for workers to buy commodities like food and housing to restore their strength to work.” Or this: “Value extraction can be thought of as the product of moving around existing resources and outputs and gaining disproportionately from the resulting trade.” Cool, hey? An ex-central banker that loathes business. These quotes are from his unabashedly fawning review of Marx’s contribution to economic theory; a philosophical dunking of which I had not been subjected to since falling into a few moral black holes in university. Carney was a central banker for more than a decade (after cutting his teeth as an investment banker (clear career trajectory: Money>Power>Glory); do not ever wonder for a second why the world is in such shambles.).
But hey, such people now control public policy and the media (brave souls that read CBC energy news know that the network invariably goes to the likes of Greenpeace’s Keith Stewart for commentary on energy/petroleum issues, which is like asking a hyena to review a French bistro). Since these people are omnipresent and have been apparently at this climate change fight for decades, let’s review their progress with respect to the climate emergency.
Here’s what Butts & co are so optimistic about. Actually, I hardly need to tell you. Everywhere around us is talk of the ‘energy transition’. Conversations are breaking out in the weirdest places about renewable energy and EVs and Building Back Better. Governments are going to very great lengths to make this happen, and have been for several decades, at least as long as Mr. Butts has been on the cause.
Global investment in renewables, over a longer timeframe, is massive; this site pegs total global renewable investment 2004-2019 at $3.5 trillion. While it doesn’t divulge 2001-2019 data, the period covering Mr. Butts’ fight, The International Renewable Energy Agency pegs 2013-2018 global solar investment at $932 billion, global wind investment at $653 billion. So at a minimum we can safely conclude that 2001-2019 expenditures comfortably exceed $3.5 trillion.The very ground is shaking from the sheer amount of money being funnelled into wind and solar investments.
Here is the payoff of those investments – the large percentage increase in renewable power (pay attention to those qualifiers please – more in a second) in the global energy mix. Wind and solar contributions to global energy have risen hugely – according to Our World in Data, from 2001 to 2019, wind power’s contribution rose from 106 Terawatt-hours (TWh) to 3,540; solar rose from 4 Twh to 1448. In combination, those two added 4,878 TWh. Huge gains! Never has Mr. Butts felt so optimistic.
Err…not so fast there – here’s the story beyond the hyperventilating headlines.
First, the media loves to point out these growth percentage gains; they make for good headline fodder for simpletons. But percentage increases off of small numbers are to be handled with care, right? Like saying you spent 500 percent more time on exercise this week than you did last week, when you spent five minutes.
So compare those changes to overall changes. In 2001, global energy consumption was 123,000 TWh. In 2019, it was 173,000 TWh, up 41% or 50,000 Twh.
We can therefore see that the increase in solar/wind’s contribution accounted for less than ten percent of the growth in total energy consumption. All for a measly $3.5 trillion.
Hydrocarbons increased by far more. In 2001, global oil consumption was 43,278 TwH, in 2019 it was 53,620 Twh, a gain of 10,342 or more than twice the growth of wind/solar. Natural gas consumption was 24,331 Twh in 2001; in 2019 it was 39,292 Twh – a gain of almost 3 times the gain in wind and solar. I’m going to be kind to Mr. Butts & co and not even bring up coal’s rosy few decades (and that coal refuses to die or even get really sick – as in, say, more than 400 new mines planned globally).
To boil this numerical soup down to a worthwhile singular statement: since Mr. Butts & co have been fighting climate change, global energy demand has grown by 50,000 Twh. Of that gain in demand, wind and solar met 4,878 Twhs’ worth, or less than ten percent, for a figure somewhere north of $3.5 trillion. (Hydrocarbons met over 41,000 Twhs’ worth of that gain.)
Oh yes, and the US Energy Information Administration is forecasting that global oil consumption will set a new record in 2022, without a full return of air travel (that is expected the following year). Mr. Butts’ fight against climate change has been a fantastic success – for hydrocarbons, apparently.
Butts & co will say that all that is history; what counts now is/are the programs/policies coming to life. Activists are clogging the arteries of the existing hydrocarbon-based system; Big Oil is on the run, anti-hydrocarbon lawsuits are flying, protesters are swarming infrastructure projects they don’t approve of like piranhas on a clumsy Amazonian tourist.
And it’s not just activists; governments are bending to activist pressure as well. That is what happens when fear becomes the guiding principle, and the climate industrial complex has indeed scared people silly about the potential effects of climate change. At the just-ended G7 conference, the leaders of the 7 members (plus an EU representative; this was an excuse to travel after all) pledged that they will Build Back Better, Build Back Greener, and will do everything they can to force action on climate change. The only thing of interest from the conference was that from the rubble of their public dialogue came a unified position over China – a proposed green spending plan in lieu of ‘a massive Chinese scheme’ that the country has the gall to pursue. In other words, China (despite pledging to go carbon neutral by 2060) has its own agenda based on their real fears – how to feed 1.3 billion people indefinitely – and the leaders of the G7 showed that they weren’t done flexing their still-functional colonial muscles by telling China their approach was not acceptable to the west.
And that’s where the wheels fall off for Butts & co. Global emissions will be dictated by the 4 billion people seeking to live like the G7, and they won’t be stopped. India’s energy minister informed a British climate conference last month that net-zero by 2060 was ‘pie in the sky’ and that India planned to live like the western world and ‘you can’t stop us.’
China’s response to the G7 plan (Boris Johnson: “As the G7, we are united in our vision for a cleaner, greener world.”) was equally blunt: “The days when global decisions were dictated by a small group of countries are long gone.” And to be sure everyone got the message loudly and clearly, China added: “Ganging up, pursuing bloc politics and forming small cliques are unpopular and doomed to fail.”
Look, it’s evident that climate change speculation has alarmed and scared many. But the road ends there. Scared they may be, but scared in the sense that obesity scares them too. Every day, 7.8 billion people vote with their wallets and choices, in support of hydrocarbons. They just do. Every single lunatic attending the G7 meeting does as well (as evidenced by the preposterous photo of Boris Johnson waving from the entrance to a jumbo jet about to carry him to…another part of England for the G7 climate conference).
If you are terrified by the prospects of climate change, you face a stark choice: assume the crash position as flight attendants show you, or start working towards a world that minimizes emissions to the extent possible, and get on with it. You will get nowhere by trying to destroy that which works now – those with brains will work to reshape it, those without will try to overthrow it. If a single one of you – whether you are Trudeau’s external brain, or the ex-governor of the Bank of England, or an academic with air-tight, peer-reviewed ‘proof’ that the end is nigh – if a single one of you thinks the world will reduce emissions to levels that you think will save the planet, in a few decades, you are sadly mistaken. The wheels of development are turning for the 4 billion people of China, India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Africa, and others. These development plans include copious amounts of fossil fuels, and they will not be stopped. It is true that western domestic industries may be forcefully metamorphosed or killed outright, that people ‘over here’ may be forced out of their cars at gunpoint and into EVs, but the developing world will not be treated similarly.
There is a notion out there, often implicit when not explicit, that showing any support at all for the existing energy system is to be ‘part of the problem’. The truth is that to support that system is to be a part of the complex, vast web that provides life to 7.8 billion people. To tear it down before it can be replaced is the very definition of the problem.
Butts & co, you can believe this or not, I don’t care. You can vilify ‘fossil fuel shills’, same. Yawn. I’m just telling you what is happening. If you think global emissions can be reduced in the way you envision, against the will of more than half the world’s population, all in order to assuage some feeling of guilt and/or fear, well, I have some bad news for you. It’s not happening.
Oh, we will transition away from hydrocarbons…just not as soon as anyone thinks. Without them, there is no system at all. Find out why – pick up “The End of Fossil Fuel Insanity” at Amazon.ca, Indigo.ca, or Amazon.com. Thanks for the support.