The global effort to produce less carbon-intensive completely stalled over the last two decades, according to a new report by the International Energy Agency. The paper put together a measure of carbon intensity — how much carbon is released per unit of energy created — and found its essentially been flat in the United States since 1990, while dropping slightly for Europe and rising for China
The combined result was that the carbon intensity of the world’s energy production dropped 6 percent from 1971 to 1990, but then flat-lined afterwards.
But because world energy consumption doubled between 1971 and now, that meant a massive increase in carbon emissions. If things continue as they have, the planet will be well on its way to warming six degrees Celsius by 2100. That would mean life-threatening sea level rise, extreme heat waves, extreme storms, extreme droughts, massive collapses in land and marine-based food supplies, the list goes on. If we’re going to get below two degrees of warming — the level scientists have cohered around as the bare minimum for avoiding catastrophe — world carbon intensity will have to be cut by 5.7 percent from its 2010 levels by 2020, and by over 60 percent by 2050.
This will not be easy, to put it mildly. The IEA report concluded that renewable power generation, taken on its own terms, was on track for the two degree goal — solar capacity grew 42 percent in 2012, and wind grew 19 percent, for example. Electric vehicle and hybrid vehicle sales doubled in 2012, and if they keep to that growth rate they’ll be on track for the two degree goal by 2020 as well. But for every other facet of the climate solution mix, the world is falling badly behind.
The opportunities for smart grid technology, more energy efficient buildings, more energy efficient industrial processes, better fuel economy standards, and for shifts to nuclear and natural gas power are all being badly underutilized, according to the IEA’s metrics. The biggest problem is the continued growth in coal use: half the coal-fired power plants constructed around the world in 2011 used inefficient technologies, and coal-based power generation overall increased six percent from 2010 to 2012. The coal sector is so large that this increase alone left its power production 28 percent higher in 2010 than all power production from non-fossil fuel sources combined.
The emerging and developing world is the big driver here: China and India alone accounted for 95 percent of the growth in global demand for coal between 2000 and 2011. In fact, while the carbon intensity of the United States’ energy sector remained virtually unchanged since 1990 — and Europe’s declined — it steadily rose for both China and India over the same time period.
This gets to one of the fundamental obstacles to reducing carbon emissions. Economic development is producing an astonishing reduction in global poverty, lifting hundreds of millions of human beings out of misery. But as a matter of technological necessity, this accomplishment has so far required a massive increase in carbon-intensive energy production. China and India — along with parts of Africa — are ground zero for this paradox.
That, in turn, gets to why America’s failure to put together ambitious climate change legislation is not just a political or policy failure, but a massive moral failure. Certainly, we need to reduce our carbon intensity for its own sake. But more importantly, as the world’s most advanced economy, with living standards that are already incredibly high in a global context, we can afford any disruptions from a wholesale shift off of fossil fuels and onto renewables. Indeed, we ought to show the rest of the world how to do it. And we have a moral obligation to do so as the biggest cumulative carbon polluter in the world.
Instead, thanks to our refusal to put a price on carbon, America remains the single largest subsidizer of fossil fuels in the world. Instead of doing the heavy lifting on renewables ourselves, we’re leaving the less fortunate of the world to carry the burden.