Is It Too Late for Renewable Energy to Slow Global Warming?

The IEA’s Stark Warning

In its annual World Energy Outlook report released last week, the International Energy Agency (IEA), one of the world’s premier sources of predictive energy analysis, issued a stark warning: we have only until 2017 to avoid being on an irreversible course that will push us past the 450 parts per million (ppm) atmospheric CO2 level that the majority of the world’s climate scientist believe will lead to catastrophic and irreversible global warming.

“As each year passes without clear signals to drive investment in clean energy,” said IEA Chief Economist Fatih Birol at a press conference observing the release of the report, “the ‘lock-in’ of high-carbon infrastructure is making it harder and more expensive to meet our energy security and climate goals.”

In his Dot Earth environmental blog, Andrew C. Revkin of the New York Times thus interprets Birol’s remarks and the report: “The [World Energy Outlook] presents a 450 Scenario, which traces an energy path consistent with meeting the globally agreed goal of limiting the temperature rise to 2°C [by limiting carbon pollution to 450ppm]. Four-fifths of the total energy-related CO2 emissions permitted to 2035 in the 450 Scenario are already locked-in by existing capital stock, including power stations, buildings and factories. Without further action [to develop renewable energy] by 2017, the energy-related infrastructure then in place would generate all the CO2 emissions allowed in the 450 Scenario up to 2035.”

Revkin goes on to say, “Delaying action is a false economy: for every $1 of investment in cleaner technology that is avoided in the power sector before 2020, an additional $4.30 would need to be spent after 2020 to compensate for the increased emissions.”

Is It Too Late?

Ecotecture’s position is that the needed renewable energy investment is simply not going to be made. There is far too little economic incentive, and thus political will to reverse the trends of dirty energy development in the world’s developing or developed countries within the next five years.

But even if the investments were made, it is probably too late for renewable energy to keep us from going beyond the 450ppm or 2ºC point. Because of the persistence of atmospheric CO2 — it stays in the atmosphere for at least several centuries — and the fact that our existing energy, manufacturing, agriculture and transportation sectors are already producing 80% of the allowable CO2 “budget” — even a perfect renewable investment scenario would only delay the “locked in” condition for a few years beyond 2035 because there will be ongoing investment in polluting industries as well.

Eventually, the polluting industries will “use up” the remaining 20% of the below-450ppm carbon budget. (Unless we abandon and dismantle the polluting industries — unlikely on a planet with an exploding population.)  (See Fiona Harvey’s excellent analysis of the 450ppm threat in the Guardian.)

Additionally, we are currently seeing the early results of disruptive climate change due to the relatively modest, approximate 1ºC  rise in global temperature that has already occurred. We clearly need to move beyond believing renewable energy can slow climate change and start thinking about removing the existing excess CO2 from the atmosphere. Meanwhile, we can buy ourselves a little time by enacting a crash energy conservation program.

Ironically, climate change might slow itself by disrupting the global economy in ways that will delegate the Great Recession to the status of a minor and mostly forgotten inconvenience. But that’s NOT how we want to reverse climate change.

Here is an shortened version of the comment I posted on the NY Times article about the World Energy Outlook report, which bases its energy-use projections on population and economic growth scenarios:

 Few of these reports discuss the very real environmental and economic consequences of global warming. How will China continue to grow, for example, when the Himalayan glaciers that supply much of its water melt away in the next 10-15 years? How will [the] American [agricultural sector remain viable] when the drought afflicting Texas and the South spreads throughout the midwest, parching farmlands?

 How many more Katrina’s can we afford, and where, in our “austerity economy,” will governments find the money to protect New York and London from rising tides that flood their respective subways and sewer systems?

 The [NY Times] article ends by saying that delaying investment in green energy beyond 2020 will be costly. One could also argue that it will simply be too late. The money won’t be there then, any more than it is here now. We’re already beyond the tipping point of global warming and carbon pollution — and we’re becoming more, rather than less locked into polluting energy sources. It’s likely to be “game over” by 2025 at the latest.

 Our only  hope is instituting emergency programs of both energy conservation and biogenic carbon sequestration. These can be implemented relatively cheaply and quickly, and don’t require rebuilding our electric grid, chiding a recalcitrant Congress into funding green energy R&D or enacting any other policies that can’t be implemented before the end of this decade.


Relevant Reading:

Buy books and help Ecotecture! If you liked this article and want to learn more, we invite you to buy books through the links below — we earn a small commission on each purchase you make. We’ll use that commission to expand our efforts to empower you to solve environmental problems.

The Rough Guide to Climate Change, Robert Henson (2011 ed.)
The Atlas of Climate Change, Kirstin Dow and Thomas Downing (Nov. 2011 ed.)
The Great Disruption, Paul Gilding
Eaarth: Making Life on a Tough New Planet, Bill McKibben
The Biochar Solution, Albert Bates 

Comments are welcome and generally will be posted if they are on topic and inoffensive. However, Ecotecture does not post comments to the effect that global warming is a hoax. Read our position on global warming here.

4 Responses to “Is It Too Late for Renewable Energy to Slow Global Warming?”

  1. Pam Serra-Wenz Says:

    Wow Skip! I did not know about this report or the lock in issue of carbon. I guess our oceans are no longer able to act as carbon sinks. Thank you for your insightful and informative perspective.

    Pam Serra-Wenz

  2. admin Says:

    In the immortal words of Mr. Bush, “Oceans no longer protect us.”

  3. Asteroid Miner Says:

    Renewables, wind and solar, can’t do the job anyway. They are too intermittent and mostly off. Solar voltaic has dropouts in mid day, Wind produces around 20% of nameplate power and sometimes nothing for a month. The only non-carbon source of energy that actually works is nuclear. See

    Look at “modular” meaning factory built, nuclear.
    Does 5.5 cents per kilowatt hour seem high? How about install in 2 weeks?

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