“Mother Earth doesn’t look at individual countries or regions, it’s the overall picture and the current system simply doesn’t work.”
Rabat – There is so much good news. The momentum towards more sustainable development models and their associated patterns of living is being driven in part by a confluence of critical factors: pollution from mass urbanization, ground and soil degradation, de-forestation, global warming, endangered natural habitats, retreating glaciers, growing social justice movements, and more.
The 2016 Paris climate accord was a foundation for collective global action. The accord was part symbolism, allowing global political leaders to rally their respective populations (and private industry) to the climate cause, and partly a general blueprint for a necessary pivot away from the burning of fossil fuels.
The 200 or more signatories committed to actions that would limit the global temperature increase to 2 degrees Celsius over pre-industrialization levels while “pursuing efforts” for a more ambitious limit of 1.5 degrees Celsius. Three years later, skepticism now abounds about the ability to even reach the modest 1.5C goal. But work continues. There is progress nearly everywhere.
Morocco has built the Noor concentrated solar power (CSP) plant at the edge of the Sahara Desert. The Climate Action Tracker (CAT) program tracks Paris climate agreement signatory nations to quantify their progress in cutting carbon emissions.
Morocco was graded as one of the few countries on track to limit CO2 emission levels and meet its respective commitment under the agreement. Taiwan is soon completing a large offshore wind farm. In the UK, during this year’s third quarter, renewable resources generated more electricity than fossil fuels for the first time ever. Paris’ city center is car-free on the first Sunday of every month. New conservative political leadership in Madrid, Spain vowed to end the city’s car ban (applicable in the city center to cut air pollution) earlier this year but reversed that decision after widespread local opposition and court rulings in support of the ban.
A coalition of global cities committed to reduce CO2 levels, known as the C40, recently reported that 30 member cities have successfully cut greenhouse gas emissions in the past five years by ten % or more. Progress.
However, along with the good news there is bad
A recent National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) study demonstrated that surface air temperatures in the Arctic region are warming twice as fast as the global average temperature. Across the Northern Hemisphere, the summer of 2019 will be the hottest on record (tied with 2016) according to NOAA; five of the hottest summers ever recorded in North America have occurred since 2014.
Global air pollution causes an estimated six to seven million premature deaths annually. An EU research team documented a 30% glacier retreat phenomenon in the Peruvian Andes between 2000 and 2016. Similar glacier retreats have been seen in Greenland, the Himalaya Mountains and Alaska.
EL Pais reported last week that according to research done by the Mediterranean Institute of Biodiversity and Ecology (IMBE) average temperatures in the Mediterranean region have already risen by a critical 1.5C during the age of industrialization.
The Fossil Fuel Economy
And then there is petroleum. And coal. Natural gas, too. Seemingly in plentiful supply. Fossil fuels account for more than three-quarters of global energy consumption and they represent the leading source of global CO2 greenhouse gas emissions.
As global economic development continues and household living standards rise (using today’s income-based standards), the use of fossil fuels for energy consumption will continue to grow through 2040 according to both the Energy Information Administration (EIA), the U.S. Department of Energy’s forecast and data agency, and the International Energy Agency.
The petroleum export market has seen dramatic changes in the past five years. The U.S. now joins Saudi Arabia and Russia as the global oil powerhouse producers thanks to the U.S. shale oil boom, natural gas boom, technological advances that make wells more productive as well as more petroleum product transportation infrastructure. The EIA also reported last week that U.S. oil production averaged a record 12.6 million barrels per day.
Even with political and military tensions in the Persian Gulf region, oil supplies have remained relatively steady in the past few months—oil currently sells at about $56/barrel. The markets are largely shrugging off these tensions, confident in the ability of key producers to rapidly calibrate production output with global needs. Cheap oil, coal and natural gas may be putting the health of the planet at risk but high oil prices often result in developing nations having to export precious currency if they lack domestic oil and energy resources. No wonder nations like Morocco are vigorously developing local renewable energy sources.
The EIA also predicts that global natural gas use will rise another 40-45% by 2050. Natural gas is the cleanest burning (least polluting) of the fossil fuels. China is likely to double its natural gas usage in the next ten to fifteen years as it diminishes a reliance on coal to generate electricity.
Off the coast of Mozambique, an Italian firm is building an enormous floating liquefied natural gas (LNG) processing facility due to start production in 2022. The movement away from coal towards natural gas as an electricity generation source is just beginning in many parts of the world, but it has begun. Qatar, Russia, the United States and Australia all plan to compete aggressively for supremacy in the growing LNG export market.
The takeaway: energy consumption across the globe continues to rise, as does the availability and use of renewable energy production sources. But, importantly, fossil fuel use (due in part to its affordability) will also continue to rise. The role of burning coal in raising atmospheric CO2 levels is well established: 30% of energy-related global CO2 emissions come from coal-powered electricity production.
And yet, global demand for coal actually rose slightly in 2017 and 2018 and the International Energy Agency predicts that demand for coal will be stable for several more years. Supply and demand.
One Step Forward, One Step Back?
Oil and natural gas are here; in the Persian Gulf region, in the Permian Basin in the southwest United States, the North Sea, the Niger Delta Basin, across Siberia, offshore Qatar and in Orinoco River Basin of Venezuela. Collectively, planning for the post-oil era is underway and sustainability is now on the agenda for governments and corporations alike.
But the global economy marches on with energy sources that are on hand; expect a significant transition period to a global economy where renewable energy plays a commanding role even with the knowledge that environmental degradation and global warming represent well-documented, ongoing and significant threats to human existence.
In the U.S. the fossil fuel industry has a strong supporter in President Donald Trump. Although Trump has instituted regulatory changes in the U.S. that promote fossil fuel usage, the movement toward sustainability and renewable energy sources represents a genuine paradigm shift in power generation that will endure beyond one particular political leadership cycle or another.
For instance, the EIA reported this year that U.S. power companies have retired or phased out nearly 550 coal-fired power plants since 2010. Natural gas and renewable sources have arrived.
The paradigm shift is also brought about by economics and the maturity of the renewable energy resources market. The costs of renewable energy sources like hydroelectric, solar and wind are now often cheaper than fossil fuel sources in some regions.
The early years of renewable energy sources included significant government subsidies for installation and maintenance. Now, economies of scale and technological advances have made renewable energy a sound business practice. Consumers, too, are paying attention to how their power is produced.
A recent report from Accenture and the UN Global Compact collected opinions and insights from more than 1,000 global executives and CEOs. “The Decade to Deliver: A Call to Business Action” represents a barometer on how corporate leadership views sustainability and equitable growth in a complex global economic system.
There seems a broad consensus—if not detailed plans—on the need for new models of sustainable growth that embrace renewable energy resources. There is considerable optimism but one somber observation came from Peter Oswald, CEO of Austria-based Mondi Group: “Mother Earth doesn’t look at individual countries or regions, it’s the overall picture and the current system simply doesn’t work.”