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We Are Reaching A Crucial Climate Turning Point
Some climate good news.
In the fight to save the planet from ourselves, good news is scarce. We are miles behind where we need to be, and the fundamental changes necessary to wean ourselves off climate-wrecking fossil fuels simply aren’t happening. Time is running out before we trigger catastrophic and near-permanent damage to this beautiful Earth. But there is hope. A recent report has found that we are painfully close to a critical climate milestone, which will signal our transition to net-zero. However, this progress is far from certain, as some massive geopolitical forces are threatening to derail it.
The report, which is by the think tank Ember, centres around when we will reach peak emissions. You see, the total emissions from global power only grew 0.2% in the first six months of 2023. That is a minuscule growth compared to what we have seen over the past twenty years. What is impressive is that the growth in global energy consumption hasn’t stagnated despite this. It has actually grown roughly the same amount it has year-on-year since 2000. This is incredibly important, as growth in energy consumption is closely tied to economic development for obvious reasons.
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This means that we are now dramatically slowing down our rapidly expanding carbon footprint without affecting our energy use, productivity or economy.
According to Ember, this is because the expansion of low-carbon energy, such as wind, solar, geothermal, hydroelectric and nuclear power, is now very nearly expanding as fast as our energy consumption is. This means we are incredibly close to a tipping point where our carbon emissions stop growing and start reducing. The fact we are nearing this point without any other significant knock-on effects is a magnificent achievement and is a testament to just how good renewable and low-carbon technology is.
Now, I should say that a previous report by Ember predicted that “peak emissions” would have already happened earlier in 2023. The reason it didn’t was because of hydroelectricity. You see, massive droughts early in the year across Asia, which has the majority of the world’s hydropower capacity, severely restricted its output. As such, the demand had to be met by other sources, like coal and gas, were used, which significantly bumped up this year’s global total emissions.
This means we have already built the infrastructure necessary to reach peak emissions next year, as long as a similar drought doesn’t happen again. However, with El Niño in full swing, this drought will likely happen again in 2024.
So, why is this so important?
Well, firstly, I don’t think many people realise just how rapidly our emissions have grown over the years. Back in 1950, which really wasn’t all that long ago, humanity as a whole emitted just 6 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide. For some comparison, the US alone emitted 6.3 billion tonnes in 2021. By 1975, the global annual emissions had risen 184% to 17.05 billion tonnes! By 2000, it had increased another 49% to 25.45 billion tonnes. It is now up another 45% over 2000 to a gargantuan 37 billion tonnes!
We haven’t been steadily emitting carbon into the atmosphere over the past hundred or so years. Year after year, our emissions have ballooned out of control. If we aren’t able to at least reduce this growth rate, catastrophic climate change with the potential to kill millions and destabilise governments could happen within a few decades.
That is why this milestone of peak emissions is so damn important. In fact, According to the recent IPCC Report, global emissions have to peak before 2025 in order to meet our climate goals and mitigate the worst of climate change. Ember has shown that we are on track to meet that, but by the skin of our teeth!
And sadly, we aren’t guaranteed to meet peak emissions before 2025, far from it. You see, coal power is threatening to derail years of climate progress.
Coal is by far the worst polluting form of energy. It emits twice the emissions of gas per kWh and around 160 times more per kWh than wind, solar and nuclear. However, it is by far the cheapest form of energy to build. So, if you want to rapidly expand your country’s energy supply, coal is the most inexpensive way to do it. That is why this form of energy still accounts for 27% of the world’s energy supply (while renewables only account for 11.4%), yet it is responsible for 45% of our fossil-fuel-derived emissions. Moreover, 40% of global emissions’ expansion in 2021 was due to expanding coal power production.
It is important to note that while coal power is cheap to build, it is expensive to run, as fuelling and servicing these stations is extremely expensive. That is why, per kWh, renewables are far cheaper. It is just more costly to build renewable infrastructure, as the costs are front-loaded.
Countries like India and China need to meet their soaring energy demands as their economies and populations rapidly grow and are investing billions in expanding their coal power capacity. With hydroelectric power being reduced thanks to droughts and a limited energy budget, these countries are having to turn to coal to keep their energy grids afloat. This expansion threatens to kick-start a new era of emissions expansion and push global peak emissions far down the line.
This is why it is imperative to include these countries in climate summits and to negotiate support for them, so they do not use coal to fill their energy deficit. However, that is easier said than done.
But, the blame cannot be fully saddled by the East. Despite their heavy use of coal, their per capita carbon emissions are better than the West’s. For example, the US per capita annual emissions sits at 14.9 tonnes. Even though China produces much more yearly emissions than the US, its per capita annual emissions are only 8 tonnes. That is a massive 47% less!
So, while we need to ensure countries like China and India have the support they need to stop using coal, we in the West have to significantly reduce our emissions, as we still hold the vast majority of the blame for climate change.
So, while this report is a glimmer of hope that shows that there is still a path forward to save this planet from ourselves, it also demonstrates just how precarious that path is. For your sake and mine, I hope we can navigate it successfully.
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