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Renewables and Climate Policy Are On A Collision Course

Dr John Constable: GWPF Energy Editor

Those advocating climate change mitigation policy have hitherto wagered everything on the success of renewable energy technologies. The steadily accumulating data on energy and emissions over the period of intense policy commitment suggests that this gamble has not been successful. Pragmatic environmentalists will be asking whether sentimental attachment to wind and solar is standing in the way of an effective emissions reduction trajectory.

For almost as long as there has been a climate policy, emissions reduction has been seen as dependent on the replacement of fossil fuels with renewable energy sources. Policies supporting this outcome are ubiquitous in the developed and developing world; markets have been coerced globally, with varying degrees of severity it is true, but with extraordinary force in the OECD states, and particularly in the European Union. The net result of several decades of such measures has been negligible. Consider, for example the global total primary energy mix since 1971, as recorded in the International Energy Agency datasets, the most recent discussion of which has just been published in the World Energy Outlook (2018):

Figure 1: Global Total Primary Energy Supply: 1971–2015. Source: Redrawn by the author from International Energy Agency, Key World Energy Statistics 2017 and 2018. IEA Notes: 1. World includes international aviation and international marine bunkers. 2. Peat and oil shale are aggregated with coal. 3. “Other” Includes geothermal, solar, wind, tide/wave/ocean, heat and other.

It is perfectly true that the proportional increase in modern renewables, the “Other” category represented by the thin red line at the top of the chart is a significant multiple of the starting base, but even this increase is disappointing given the subsidies involved, and in any case it is almost completely swamped by the increase in overall energy consumption, and that of fossil fuels in particular. Renewables in total, modern renewables plus biofuels and waste and hydro, amounted to about 13% of Total Primary Energy in 1971, and in 2016 are almost unchanged at somewhat under 14%. Thirty years of deployment, almost half of that time under increasingly strong post-Kyoto policies, has seen the proportion of renewable energy in the world’s primary energy input creep up by about one percentage point.

Furthermore, what is true at a global level is also true in every national jurisdiction of importance, with the exception that in the less economically vibrant parts of the developed world, including the EU and the UK, energy consumption is actually declining, largely due the transfer of much manufacturing to other parts of the world, principally China.

It should therefore come as no surprise to anybody that emissions not only continue to rise, but have recently started to increase at the highest rate for several years, a point that is revealed in the latest release of the Global Carbon Budget, 2018, and can be conveniently illustrated in the chart derived from this paper’s data and published in the coverage of the Financial Times:

Figure 2: Global Emissions 1960 to 2018. Source: Financial Times, 6 December 2018, drawn from Global Carbon Budget Report 2018.

These dismal facts are producing the obtuse reaction that the current renewables dependent policies are insufficiently aggressive, or, to use the accepted jargon, ambitious, and that the world must try harder. The reaction of the BBC’s Matt McGrath may be typical. He asks: “Why are governments taking so long to take action?”.

But this is a misplaced question. The plain reality is that the global market coercions, and related policy pressures favouring renewables are already intense and incessant, and have been so with growing intensity for over fifteen years. Many economies, large and small, have tried very hard indeed, but the global energy markets have barely moved. Why? Because the effort is wasted; the picked winners, the renewable technologies, remain stubbornly uneconomic, with the consequence that spontaneous, uncoerced and rapid adoption remains a dream.

This is what policy failure looks like. At what point do those sincerely concerned to see prompt and sustainable emissions reductions begin to wonder whether the renewables industry is a liability and an obstacle to the aim of climate change mitigation?

Instead of blaming lazy governments, or the irrational consumer, now rioting in the streets of Paris in protest at climate policy impositions on transport fuels, environmentalists and campaigning analysts might spend their time more fruitfully by reviewing the wisdom of the policies that they have pressed on decision-makers. In doing so they could reflect that climate change mitigation is in certain important respects no different from other insurance policies, and must therefore pass the same tests: Is the policy providing real cover and is the premium affordable and proportional to the risk?

Since the rising trend in emissions leaves no doubt that the current policies have as yet provided no real insurance, discussion of affordability becomes in a sense academic, though we can note in passing that it is also true that the emissions abatement cost of renewables is so great that it exceeds even high end estimates of Social Cost of Carbon, meaning that the policies are more harmful than the climate change they set out to mitigate. – This is not only wasted effort, it is counterproductive to human welfare.

It will take time for this evidence and reasoning to change minds. Many environmentalists have a sentimental attachment to renewable energy flows in spite of their evident thermodynamic inferiority as fuels. They see them as Goop energy, pure heavenly gifts, handed down, naturally, from a benevolent sun, as opposed to the dirty and artificial earthly products of the soil that are fossil fuels and nuclear. But such feelings must be set aside in the interest of practicality. Climate campaigners must now ask themselves which they prefer, renewables or the stable and long-term reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, for it is increasingly clear that they cannot have both. The renewables industry, the vested interests of Big Green, and the widely endorsed imperative for climate change mitigation cannot co-exist for much longer. One or the other, or perhaps both, has to give way.