James Hansen, the visionary scientist who famously warned the US Congress about global warming in 1988, has recently given a candid and urgent interview to The Guardian.
In his alarming statements, he paints a grim picture of our planet hurtling towards a superheated climate unseen for a million years. Frustrated by the lack of action taken to address the climate crisis, Hansen didn’t mince words, referring to humanity as “we damned fools” for ignoring the impending catastrophe.
The gravity of his warning is further corroborated by the latest data from NOAA’s Global Monitoring Laboratory, revealing that the global average carbon dioxide concentration in May 2022 reached 421 ppm. This is the highest level observed since the mid-Pliocene, a staggering 2 to 4 million years ago.
The concentration has surged by 50% since the Industrial Revolution, when it hovered around 280 ppm. Unsurprisingly, the primary culprits responsible for this surge are the burning of fossil fuels and land use changes.
Efforts to transition towards renewable electricity aim to curb carbon emissions, but experts question whether they will be sufficient. The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that from 2021 to 2026, the world will add 305GW of renewable electricity capacity annually.
This increase could potentially save about 683 million tons of carbon emissions each year, assuming that renewable energy maintains a 30% capacity factor, typical for wind and solar power.
Total energy consumption
However, this progress could be overshadowed by the rising carbon emissions from wildfires, a consequence of worsening climate conditions. While measuring wildfires’ carbon emissions proves challenging, they can release millions of tons of carbon in a single season.
Disturbingly, Canada’s 2023 wildfire season alone emitted an estimated 12 gigatons of carbon, negating almost a year’s worth of carbon savings from renewable electricity.
To assess the progress of renewable energy, it’s essential to evaluate both its generation and output. Generation refers to the total electricity produced from renewable sources, while output pertains to the portion of renewable electricity in the overall electricity mix, including fossil fuels and nuclear power.
According to the IEA projections, renewable electricity generation is projected to grow by a commendable 60% from 2021 to 2026, reaching over 10,000 TWh per year. Nonetheless, the output of renewable electricity is expected to increase only from 29% in 2020 to 34% in 2026, as fossil fuels and nuclear power will continue to dominate the energy mix.
However, it’s crucial to remember that electricity constitutes only a fraction of total energy consumption, which also encompasses transportation, heating and cooling, and industrial uses.
Calculating the ratio of electricity generated to total energy produced depends on the method used — either the direct method or the substitution method. The direct method accounts for primary energy sources without correcting for the inefficiencies in converting fossil fuels and biomass.
In contrast, the substitution method adjusts for these inefficiencies by converting nuclear and modern renewable sources to their equivalent amount of primary energy if derived from fossil fuels.
Using the direct method, the global ratio of electricity generated to total energy produced was 18.4% in 2019, rising to 22.8% when using the substitution method. This indicates that electricity accounts for less than a quarter of the world’s total energy production.
Shockingly, the latest data reveals that global energy demand stands at approximately 418 exajoules, with a mere 60 exajoules sourced from renewables.
What’s even more disconcerting is that the growth of renewables in the past decade has been a paltry 3%, woefully inadequate to meet the escalating energy needs, which have surged by more than 18% in the same period.
To tackle the ominous threat of greenhouse gases, the world requires far more than empty promises; concrete actions are urgently needed.
— Dr Abdullah Belhaif Al Nuaimi is a former UAE minister of Infrastructure Development and for Climate Change and Environment