Guest post: Roger Andrews
The world’s efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions began with the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992, were formalized in the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 and have since mutated into the hundreds of “XX percent of renewables by 20YY” targets adopted by groups of countries, individual countries and regional jurisdictions. They have spawned, among other things, innumerable bureaucracies, countless climate conferences, forests of wind turbines, patchwork quilts of solar panels and a billion-dollar-a-day climate change industry.
And they haven’t worked worth a damn.
Figure 1: Global CO2 Emissions and Atmospheric CO2 Concentrations, 1965-2013
Clearly the world did something wrong. Here we will briefly examine what it was and where the world might now be if it had done things right.
As to what the world did wrong, the seeds of failure were planted right at the outset when the representatives of 154 nations convened in Rio de Janeiro in June 1992 and adopted the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the primary objective of which was to “achieve, in accordance with the relevant provisions of the Convention, stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system”.
If one believed that man-made greenhouse gases were indeed dangerous, which the conferees evidently did, this objective made eminent sense. The problem was that the “relevant provisions”, which required that the world transition to a sustainable economy and eradicate global poverty at the same time as it was fighting climate change, made it almost impossible to achieve. For example:
- The burden of cutting emissions was to be shouldered entirely by the developed countries, which at the time accounted for only half of total global emissions (“the developed country Parties should take the lead in combating climate change and the adverse effects thereof”)
- At the same time the developing countries that accounted for the other half were encouraged to increase their emissions in order to eradicate global poverty (“social development and poverty eradication are the first and overriding priorities of the developing country Parties.”)
- The developed countries also had to reduce emissions in such a way as “to enable economic development to proceed in a sustainable manner”. Since all the good hydroelectric dam sites were taken and nuclear wasn’t considered sustainable this effectively limited their options to wind, solar and biomass.
Any chance that these conflicting and restrictive directives might lead to emissions cuts vanished entirely when specific commitments were formalized in the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. Thirty-five developed countries committed to cut their combined emissions 5% below 1990 levels by 2008-12, but because their combined 1997 emissions were already 12% lower than their combined 1990 emissions they could meet this goal with room to spare without actually having to cut their emissions at all. And if they did succeed in achieving any real cuts some 150 developing countries stood poised to overwhelm their puny efforts by increasing their emissions in the name of poverty eradication, which they did, and very effectively too.
And that’s what the world did wrong. After deciding to cut emissions it came up with an agreement that not only made it impossible to cut emissions but which effectively guaranteed that they would continue to increase at a healthy rate.
Now let’s see what might have been done differently. We will start by reviewing the situation in 1992, the year in which the UNFCCC established stabilization of atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations at “safe” levels as its primary objective.
To achieve this objective in the face of increasing world energy demand the critical requirement is to “decarbonize” global energy generation by progressively replacing carbon-intensive energy sources with carbon-free ones, in which category I include nuclear, hydro, wind, solar, biomass and other renewables. (I use “carbon-free” as a term of convenience; none of these sources are entirely carbon-free). And the metric that gauges progress is the percentage of world energy supplied by carbon-free sources. As long as it keeps increasing the world is on track towards ultimate decarbonization regardless of how much energy it consumes.
Had the Earth Summit conferees reviewed the data in this light they would have found that the world had been making significant strides towards decarbonization before they even convened. Between 1973 and 1991 the percentage of world energy supplied by carbon-free sources had in fact more than doubled, and all because of growth in nuclear:
Figure 2: Percent of World Energy Generated by Carbon-Free Sources 1965-1991
The next step should have been a no-brainer. If the Earth was in danger of being fried by greenhouse gases there was an urgent need to cut carbon emissions by any means possible, and since nuclear was already doing such a good job the nuclear ball had to be kept rolling. But nuclear didn’t figure into the plans of the framers of the UNFCCC because it wasn’t “sustainable”, so they discarded it in favor of renewables (and did their best to ban it altogether at Kyoto by denying it carbon credits). The results were predictable. Nuclear began to lose market share and increased market penetration by renewables barely made up the difference, so after struggling upwards for a few more years the positive decarbonization trend of the 1970s and 1980s went flat and stayed flat:
Figure 3: Percent of World Energy Generated by Carbon-Free Sources 1965-2013
And if we count only dispatchable generation it went negative:
Figure 4: Percent of World Energy Generated by Dispatchable Carbon-Free Sources 1965-2013
But what would have happened if the nuclear ball had been kept rolling? A reasonable ball-park estimate of the amount of money spent on wind, solar and biomass since 1992 is $US2 trillion. If this money had been spent on nuclear instead we would now be looking at something like Figure 5. The world would be back on the decarbonization track, and because the added nuclear is dispatchable there would also be no danger of the lights going out anywhere except in those places where the lights routinely go out anyway:
Figure 5: Percent of World Energy Generated by Carbon-Free Sources 1965-2013, $2 Trillion Spent on Nuclear Instead of Renewables after 1992
(To construct this graph I prorated $2 trillion relative to annual wind + solar + biomass & other generation between 1992 and 2013, converted the annual dollar amounts into nuclear capacity at $5,000/KW and calculated nuclear generation assuming an 85% load factor)
And although $2 trillion sounds like a lot, when spread over 22 years it doesn’t represent a large commitment in the context of global expenditures on energy (approximately $400 billion was invested in the electricity sector alone in 2013). So let’s assume that the world had invested another $1 trillion over the same period to convert baseload coal plants to natural gas at an assumed cost of $1,000/installed KW. Gas emits about half as much CO2 as coal, which from a carbon accounting standpoint is the same as converting half the output of the coal plants to carbon-free generation. Calculating this carbon-free component at an assumed load factor of 70% and adding it to Figure yields the following results:
Figure 6: Percent of World Energy Generated by Carbon-Free Sources 1965-2013, $2 Trillion Spent on Nuclear rather than Renewables after 1992 plus $1 Trillion Spent Converting Baseload Coal to Gas
Progress remains visible even when the Y-scale is expanded to 100%:
Figure 7: Figure 6 Data With Expanded Y-Scale
(Progress will, however, cease at or around the 40% level because these decarbonization measures are applicable only to electricity generation, which presently supplies only about 40% of the world’s energy. Decarbonizing the other 60% is a much tougher proposition.)
These “what if” scenarios suggest that there is still hope for cutting global emissions and decarbonizing global electricity generation despite the world having wasted the last twenty or so years in the unproductive pursuit of renewable energy. Before this can happen, however, the UNFCCC will have to be replaced by an agreement that sets realistic goals based on the use of proven commercial-scale technologies and which defers the transition to sustainable energy and the eradication of global poverty until such time as they become feasible undertakings.