16 June 2014

Treading Water

The graph above shows data from the BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2014, which was released today. It shows the proportion of global energy consumption that comes from carbon-free sources.

The proportion of carbon-free energy consumption is a far more important metric of progress with respect to the challenge of stabilizing carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere than looking at carbon dioxide emissions. The reason for this is that emissions are a consequence of energy consumption, and the way that we influence emissions is through energy technologies and their use in the economy. So looking directly at energy consumption is a much more direct and relevant way to understand the technological challenge of emissions reductions. From a policy perspective, looking solely at emissions can easily deceive.

In 2013 the proportion of carbon-free energy consumption was just about 13%, representing a continuation of no trend in that measure that has continued for more than 20 years. The measure did tick up from 2012 - from 13.1% to 13.3%, to just about equal to what it was in 1999.

To stabilize atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide requires that this proportion exceed 90%, independent of how much energy the world ultimately consumes. But don't take my word for it, do the math yourself. The timing of exceeding that 90% threshold will determine the atmospheric concentration level at which stabilization ultimately occurs.

If the increase in the carbon-free proportion from 2012 to 2013 (of 0.17%) is taken as a trend going forward, then the 90% threshold will be exceeded in the year 2465. Fortunately, linear projections of most anything related to future energy are wrong.

What you should take from this however is that there remains no evidence of an increase in the proportion of carbon-free energy consumption even remotely consistent with the challenge of atmospheric stabilization of atmospheric carbon dioxide. Those who claim that the world has turned a corner, soon will, or that they know what steps will get us around that corner are dreamers or fools. We don't know. The sooner we accept that, the sooner we can design policies more compatible with policy learning and muddling through.


  1. It might be ever so slightly off-topic, but the recent events surrounding professor
    Rossiter, and of course many others struggling to maintain their academic freedom, highlights your own struggle to do the same. I do wonder what you and others might say if the constant threat of scientific ex-communication was lifted.

  2. Is there any breakdown of how much of the 13.3 % is hydro power ?

    I suspect it will constitute the majority of that figure and many "green" organisations oppose hydro almost as much as CO2 emitting technologies.

    I myself favour preservation of large areas of natural forest and other environments as much as possible but this is easy for me - I don't have to struggle to avoid malnutrition - at least not yet.

    As I am a pensioner in Australia I have yet to face the escalation in energy costs associated with unrealistic attempts to run a modern society entirely on renewables - but it is coming here too.

    At least at 27 degrees South on the edge of the pacific ocean the climate only occasionally demands some air conditioning and never in winter.

    1. Don't forget nuclear as well. It is a good proportion of the 1960's/1970's era growth in non-carbon energy supply.

      You'll have to go back to the paleo data--extend the graph back to about 1600 to see windmills take a significant portion of the graph. They will be fighting with animal power in those days, but those are CO2 emitters, so they don't count.

    2. Ross hydro is about 6 % share and has held a roughly constant share of the total. As the total went up, the hydro total went up and held its share. The BP report has lots of tables and graphs, one just has to dig around to find the data.

      What makes me think things will be getting really grim in the future is the fact that we are running out of oil. BP has a projection with oil having a reduced share over time...and I bet they model a price increase which curbs demand. If I were living in the USA I would think seriously about buying a much smaller vehicle with a five speed manual transmission.

  3. It is not surprising that the proportion of renewables or carbon free energy has not increased despite what many people may imagine. This is particularly the case given the media profile and the magnitude of subsidies that have been thrown at the problem (particularly electricity).

    The fact remains that large-scale renewables have their own challenges:

    • They must be located at the resource
    • They are generally not adjacent to large populations
    • They require large scale transmission
    • Unless they have inherent storage (hydro) or natural storage (geothermal) they provide intermittent power that requires back-up.
    • Markets generally work and the most economic have already been tackled.

    Most renewables have significant physical foot-prints (wind, hydro) or significant visual or environmental effects (wind, hydro storage reservoirs).

    Hydro and geothermal require massive up-front capital commitments, the benefit being that you get effective zero short run marginal cost power.

    Solar is the potential game changer, but is still only marginal (if subsidies, tax breaks, property tax rebates, feed in tariffs etc) are excluded in many places (note I say many places).

    Until storage is available either cheaply and is distributed then it will remain a challenge, requiring either grid based back-up or significant grid investment to allow some degree of geographic diversity.

    Which brings me to the debate on recent related threads. The fundamental assumption of many people is that these and other technologies are universally economic or that if the price of carbon was just ‘right’ they would be (hence cap and trade, carbon taxes etc.). There appears to be a massive misunderstanding about the scale of investment that is required to build an economy to current first world standards and the speed at which this can occur today (yes China does build a power station every week or so on average).

    So the proportion in the graph remains stuck as the denominator is growing fast enough to offset the numerators growth.

    The fundamental problem is that we can make a reasonable estimate of the cost of imposing cap and trade etc at a national economy level now, but we do not have sufficient certainty of the problem and response to make a reasonable estimate of the benefit through time (i.e. with sufficient certainty). The issue is that if human climate change effects are accepted as an externality, it is an externality that can only be solved via near global agreement. The fact that a tragedy of the commons issue can be clearly identified does not make it any easier to solve.

    In a world with global trade, global aspirations and global greenhouse gases, cause, effect and cost become hugely contentious.

    The reality is that much of the capital deployed to date is imposing significant costs on the poorest in the developed world. It is imposing almost no cost on the less developed as they can’t afford it in the first place.

    Although the overall issue has aspects of debate and belief approaching that of a religion I think at the core are a couple of key issues (there are more, but this is a blog comment not an essay):

    • There is no free lunch, the cost curve for the technologies is converging, but conventional costs are generally rising (ignoring supply and demand related fuel swings such as shale gas), while new tech is falling towards conventional.

    • There is a GDP impact of increasing fuel cost via carbon taxes etc. and it is not offset by ‘green’ investment if that investment itself is funded via government transfers

  4. Main reason for stand still is nuclear slow down, I think. Renewables are rising but not more than nuclear sink. More in my blog.

    Greeting Risto J.

  5. Interesting that the most rapid upturn in non-carbon power came in the late 1970s in the midst of that previous climate hysteria, the one about a New Ice Age.