When the International Energy Agency (IEA) reported in late March that energy consumption in 2018 rose at the fastest rate in a decade, it confirmed something that most of those who truly understand the climate crisis already know: Collectively, humanity is making almost no progress in doing anything significant about climate change. So, it's not surprising that atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration has hit yet another record high.
While the dominate public narrative has been that we are making great leaps toward a low-carbon economy through the rapid deployment of renewable energy, the IEA report showed a civilization moving inexorably toward climate catastrophe.
Of the growth in energy demand—the extra energy needed to power the world economy in 2018 versus 2017—70 percent was supplied by fossil fuels. When we hear, as the IEA tells us, that solar energy generation increased by 31 percent last year without appropriate context, we fail to understand that this is off a very small base relative to fossil fuel energy.
Coal burning accounted for about one-third of all emissions in 2018. Coal consumption continues to increase. This, we are told, is despite the rising use of natural gas for electricity generation. But, natural gas, though it contains less carbon, is still a carbon fuel.
Perhaps the most important statement in the release was this:
Almost a fifth of the increase in global energy demand came from higher demand for heating and cooling as average winter and summer temperatures in some regions approached or exceeded historical records. Cold snaps drove demand for heating and, more significantly, hotter summer temperatures pushed up demand for cooling.
Climate change is creating a vicious cycle in which that change creates greater extremes in weather which create more demand for energy which is still largely generated using fossil fuels—which then release more greenhouse gases creating even more extreme climate.
The IEA does make a strong statement that the world is moving in the opposite direction it needs to. But, of course, the IEA's role is to make such statements. It cannot force any of its member governments to do anything.
The problem is not lack of information or understanding. When even staid multilateral organizations such as the IEA state baldly that we are in terrible trouble, you can be assured that the message has become acceptable at the highest levels of government.
We are not only not reducing carbon emissions, we are increasing the rate at which we put carbon into the atmosphere again.
A friend said recently that all of the energy "solutions" we have now are conspiring to push back the wall he expects civilization to hit just a little bit while increasing the speed at which we will hit it.
A common saying among investors is that the trend is your friend. That is likely true in a wide range of human pursuits. But, in the case of climate change the trend has never been our friend and it is getting more and more unfriendly with each passing day.
By Kurt Cobb
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